SATURDAY MAILBOX

The Baltimore Sun

What vice will we seek to ban next?

With the approval of the city-wide smoking ban, the City Council undoubtedly feels it has scored a major coup that puts Baltimore alongside Chicago, Los Angeles and New York among the "trendy elite" of cities that have jumped on the anti-smoking bandwagon ("Snuffed," editorial, Feb. 28).

While tobacco smoke may truly pose significant health risks, and this ban will be viewed by many people as progressive and positive, I think most of us may be missing the forest for the trees on this issue.

What should truly concern us more as Baltimoreans and Americans is a far more wide-sweeping and all-encompassing risk - the threat of a government growing beyond its intended scope to the point where it may soon threaten to encroach upon or cancel our most basic of rights, freedoms and liberties.

Where do we draw the line when it comes to protecting ourselves from ourselves?

Today, we are banning indoor smoking.

What's next? Banning fast food because of its fat content? Banning lawn fertilizer because of the hazardous chemical residue?

Will the wealth and political clout of the insurance and health care industries succeed in rendering moot the preferences and rights of individuals?

While I don't anticipate that anti-smoking regulations will cause nearly the uproar that Prohibition brought about, did we not learn from our past mistakes?

Did we not learn that we Americans value our leisurely indulgences and the right to practice them unfettered? Or are we destined to repeat our errors ad nauseam?

It wasn't all that long ago that a simple tea tax stirred our forefathers to revolt.

These men fought to break free of tyranny and restrictions, and to create the great nation we call our home.

But today, we have helmet laws, seatbelt laws, "gun control" laws, red-light cameras, surveillance cameras on street corners and now entire nonsmoking cities and counties.

Somehow, I don't think that this is what our Founding Fathers had in mind.

And it makes me wonder what will spur the next great revolt in this country

Could it be the cheeseburger?

Gregory Ricas

Baltimore

Tax tobacco to care for state's uninsured

In Maryland, nearly 800,000 men, women and children lack medical insurance.

This strains our state's superb health care system and drives up the cost of health care for everyone with insurance.

During the current General Assembly session, we have a chance to make some important changes and to advance an agenda that's strongly supported in a recent poll that shows nearly 90 percent of Marylanders want action on health care access this session.

That same poll shows that eight out of 10 people favor a higher cigarette tax if it leads to wider health coverage.

That's a powerful public statement that our legislators should heed.

It's time to give more people health care coverage.

By approving a $1 increase in the state's cigarette tax, legislators could pay for expanded health care coverage for the poor, help small businesses find affordable insurance for their workers and reward companies that start wellness programs for workers ("Tax-increase discussions under way," Feb. 27).

This is a smart trade-off.

Every pack of cigarettes sold in Maryland costs this state nearly $14 in health care and smoking-related expenses.

That adds up to $2 billion in tobacco-related costs in Maryland each year.

If we raise the state tobacco tax by $1 a pack, it's estimated that 53,000 kids will never start smoking and 29,000 adults will quit smoking.

Let's expand health insurance access and give smokers another good reason to break that nasty habit.

A. Samuel Penn

Baltimore

The writer is a member of the boards of LifeBridge Health and Sinai Hospital.

Another failed effort to save city schools?

The Sun's article "Failing schools face big changes" (Feb. 27) reported on yet another program purported to be the cure for the ills of eight distressed city schools.

In this case, leading roles will be played by officials of Towson University and the Johns Hopkins University, as management of some schools will be turned over to them.

On the surface, this sounds good.

After all, if the current school administration is producing poor results, why not turn schools over to academics who might bring in effective ideas based on current research?

Reading between the lines, however, I find that this new program is actually a rescue effort for a previous save-the-day program that did not work.

I am talking about the vaunted five-year high school reform program that began in 2002 and was funded with $20 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other foundations.

I sat on a community board for this program until June 2004, when the task of breaking up Northern and Lake Clifton high schools into smaller units was completed.

It's true that creating smaller schools made management somewhat easier. But the issues of deficient academics and out-of-control student behavior were still quite overwhelming.

And now I see that whatever high school reform efforts we helped start obviously did not work because Frederick Douglass, Patterson and Northwestern high schools are still listed as "failing high schools."

Was that the whole impact of the $20 million high school reform project?

And how much more money will be put into programs that produce poor results?

Joyce Wolpert

Baltimore

The writer is a former member of the school improvement team at Lake Clifton High School.

Atone for condoning decades of slavery

Any official apology for slavery from the state of Maryland is already 140 years overdue ("Slavery," Feb. 25). But apologize the state must.

Hundreds of years of black slavery in Maryland were not simply an accident of geography.

While Maryland was and still is a Southern state, its destiny as a slave state was not set in stone.

At any point before 1865, Maryland could have opted to abolish slavery within its borders - as many Northern states had done - and thereby effectively pushed the Mason-Dixon line south to the Potomac River.

But the fact of the matter is that slavery thrived in Maryland, in all its forms, only at the official, legal and constitutional behest of the state government.

By choosing not to outlaw slavery, the state government not only acquiesced to the brutal institution but also abetted and enabled it.

And it is this moral failure that makes the state of Maryland liable to make the appropriate amends to the victims and to the descendants of those victimized by the state-sanctioned and state-enforced abomination that abased so much of the daily life for the first 90 years of our state's existence.

D. Harrison

Arbutus

Assault rifles rarely used by criminals

Paul Helmke's column "Ban assault rifles, save Maryland lives" (Opinion

Commentary, Feb. 27) is so replete with phony facts and intentional omissions that it begs for a response.

First, if there is a crime committed with an assault rifle in Maryland every 48 hours, it must be news to the Maryland State Police.

In fact, the criminal use of assault rifles in this state is extremely rare, and legally owned assault rifles are hardly involved in crime at all.

Second, Maryland already regulates the sale of assault rifles. The purchase of these weapons requires a seven- day waiting period and a background check - just like the purchase of a handgun.

Person-to-person sale and out-of-state purchases by Maryland residents must go through a licensed Maryland firearms dealer or the state police, subject to the same waiting period and background check. Thus the Maryland State Police already know where these guns are.

Third, the idea that redundant legislation, no matter how restrictive, will have an effect on anyone other than law-abiding citizens is truly delusional.

If Mr. Helmke is really interested in preventing gun crimes, he should direct his energies toward those who use any kind of firearm in a felony.

Jay S. Goodman

Baltimore

The writer is a member of the Maryland Arms Collectors Association.

Focus on firearms doesn't stop crime

There they go again: The anti-gun crowd - this time represented by Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence - puts forth an utterly false argument that those awful "assault weapons" should be banned ("Ban assault rifles, save Maryland lives," Opinion

Commentary, Feb. 27).

To buttress that suggestion, Mr. Helmke uses a set of false statistics cobbled together by another anti-gun organization, CeaseFire Maryland, and whines about the awful appearance and operation of the firearms in question.

However, while similar in design and general appearance to some of their military brethren, the equipment Mr. Helmke speaks of so disparagingly is usually made much too precisely for the nonsensical "spray firing" process he describes to be possible.

And the various look-alike rifles are used mainly in target competition, rather than in decimating the crowds at the local mall or ballpark.

If the anti-gun people who seem to fear objects far more than they fear criminals would spend their time working to restrict criminals rather than the mere tools they use, they might actually do something useful for society.

W. C. Harsanyi

Pasadena

Hardened felons can't be reformed

Gregory Kane is right: The death penalty should be retained ("Prison time won't stop these killers. Death will," Feb. 24). The arguments of those in favor of abolishing it do not hold water.

There are people who simply cannot be controlled short of putting an end to their miserable existence.

Sustaining hardened criminals in prison for long periods of time doesn't reform them.

But who has the right to take the life of another? Some people may say, "Only God."

But then why do we as a people authorize soldiers to kill our enemies and police officers to gun down armed criminals? Didn't we, through our government, authorize them to take lives? So what is the beef against the death penalty?

Gracias R. Reyes

Baltimore

Death penalty needs reforms

Gregory Kane is right that in states without the death penalty, convicted murderers serving life without parole can kill prison guards or fellow prisoners with impunity because there is no additional punishment to deter them ("Prison won't stop these killers. Death will," Feb. 24). But that does not justify retaining the death penalty system.

Rather than keeping or abolishing the system as a whole, a more balanced approach would be to eliminate the death penalty for first-degree murder in most instances but carve out a few carefully defined exceptions - cases of prisoners committing killings while serving life without parole sentences and contract murders, for example.

For this to really work, the state should also establish a dedicated death penalty court that would fast-track such cases from arrest to trial in, say, six weeks and require stringent elements of proof - i.e., direct evidence only, no circumstantial evidence, and the use of the most sophisticated forms of DNA, fingerprinting and other physical testing technologies.

The trial judge, prosecutor and defense attorney would all be state-certified specialists in death penalty litigation, minimizing grounds for appeal.

The number of death-penalty eligible cases under this system would be relatively small.

This approach would also limit the chances of wrongful conviction and virtually eliminate speculation over whether an executed defendant could be exonerated after death.

Paul W. Valentine

Baltimore

Synagogues nurture Jews for long term

Liz F. Kay's article "New path to Judaism" (Feb. 20) unfortunately tells only half the story and recycles inaccurate criticisms of synagogues.

The allegations that synagogues are inflexible and interested only in money are offensive and are contradicted by the record.

Baltimore-area synagogues do not let financial constraints prevent any child from observing a bar mitzvah.

Private tutoring and ancillary study support are mainstays of synagogue programs.

But families who approach synagogues with bar mitzvah-age children and expect synagogues to jump through the hoops to fulfill their personal needs and to meet some arbitrary date are unreasonable and have not responsibly dealt with the true significance of this milestone.

Bar mitzvah is not simply about memorizing a portion of the Torah. It is about acquiring life skills and knowledge.

As I tell my students, bar mitzvah means celebrating the "Jew in you."

Bar mitzvah means being part of a community of learners and seekers whose interactions confirm the essence of being a Jew.

This peoplehood concept is what sets Judaism apart from other traditions that are rich in ritual but lack the idea of being part of a historic group.

For-hire tutors may be well intentioned and loving, but no one should think that their influence is consequential.

Tutors provide a quick fix.

However, synagogues are in it for the long haul and to nurture Jews whose identity goes beyond a bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Mark J. Payoff

Fulton

The writer is the rabbi of Temple Isaiah.

Sondheim opened door to excellence

As a 1976 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the school's current principal, I wish to expand on The Sun's description of Walter Sondheim Jr.'s role in racially integrating the public schools of Baltimore ("The Sondheim era," editorial, Feb. 16).

Two years before the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, Mr. Sondheim voted with the 5-3 majority of the city school board to admit African-American young men to Poly's A-Course in 1952, believing that it was impossible to re-create the Poly experience at all-black Douglass High School.

The following week, Poly became the first integrated public high school below the Mason-Dixon Line, providing some very solid ground for the Brown decision that would come in 1954.

Two years ago, two Poly students had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Mr. Sondheim as they created their award-winning documentary Blazing a Trail Before Brown.

They were impressed and inspired by his dedication to racial equality in education.

Today, Poly's student body reflects the racial and gender makeup of Baltimore.

All of Poly's students, faculty and alumni owe a great debt to Mr. Sondheim and those who stood with him for creating fair and equitable access to the excellence of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Barney J. Wilson

Baltimore

Touch-screen voting still an act of faith

It is impossible to say, as Donald F. Norris and Paul S. Herrnson do in their column "Don't replace voting system" (Opinion

Commentary, Feb. 26), that the paperless touch-screen voting system has performed well.

We simply do not know how the system has performed because we cannot audit or recount the results.

Paperless touch-screen voting is a faith-based system.

Before being forced to switch to touch-screen voting, 19 of Maryland's 24 counties used optical-scanning systems. In that period, Maryland had the lowest rate of nonrecorded votes in the nation.

In the presidential election of 2004, 12 percent of Montgomery County's voting machines malfunctioned.

The current voting system has also been exorbitantly expensive to purchase, store and use.

In 2001, the year the decision was made to purchase the touch-screen machines, Baltimore County paid $366,620 to maintain its optical-scan system.

This year, the county will pay more than $1.3 million to maintain the Diebold AccuVote TS system.

And the process used to seek to guarantee that the touch-screen machines are not tampered with from outside on Election Day requires procedures that greatly increase setup and breakdown time.

Yet none of the external protective measures can prevent an internal software virus or code from altering election outcomes.

Such an event would remain undetected.

For these reasons, the majority of states have already moved to optical-scan voting technology.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is the latest state executive to demand that his state abandon paperless voting in favor of optical-scan technology ("Voting reform seen unlikely until 2010," Feb. 2).

It is the only voting technology on the market that offers both rapid, computerized vote tabulation and a permanent paper ballot, which can be verified by the voter, for audits and recounts.

Mary Howe Kiraly

Bethesda

The writer is the administrator of the Maryland Election Integrity Coalition. It was hard to accept the credibility of Donald F. Norris and Paul S. Herrnson's column "Don't replace voting system" when their most important claims are misleading at best.

For example, they describe as "dubious" the "claim that voters lack confidence in the touch-screen system."

But a poll Mr. Norris himself conducted for the Maryland State Board of Elections in 2006 found that:

55.1 percent of voters agreed the machines could be corrupted by malicious software.

29.1 percent felt that the machines were not secure against tampering.

24 percent felt the machines could not be trusted.

69.4 percent felt that voters should be able to confirm their vote with a paper record.

The authors claim that there have been no problems with the machines in Maryland.

But this is inconsistent with reports in The Sun about Diebold Election Systems' providing Maryland with defective motherboards that caused the machines to crash in mid-vote, the use of uncertified software, machine breakdowns and reports of names missing from ballots, among other problems ("Diebold machine glitch fixed quietly," Oct. 26).

The authors claim optical-scan systems result in undervotes and overvotes.

But, in fact, optical-scan systems are designed so that when a voter puts the ballot in the machine, it will give the ballot back to the voter if he or she votes for two candidates in one race or fails to vote in a race.

Finally, the authors make outlandish claims about the cost of optical-scan systems in comparison with the touch-screen machines the state is using.

In fact, optical-scan systems are much less expensive. Each precinct needs only one optical-scan machine but five to 10 touch-screen machines.

With nearly 2,000 precincts in Maryland, that adds up to more than 10,000 more machines to store, operate, maintain, upgrade and repair.

Worse still, the touch-screen machines have a 7 percent yearly replacement rate.

So, in reality, switching to optical-scan systems would save Maryland significant money.

Kevin Zeese

Takoma Park

The writer is a co-founder of TrueVoteMD.org.

Donald F. Norris and Paul S. Herrnson missed the point when they argued against switching from touch-screen to optical-scan voting machines.

They claimed that the existing machines have performed well and "no results have been challenged based on the performance of these machines."

While this may be true in Maryland's experience, it is not true in other states.

Let me give two examples of problems - both of which could have been avoided with optical-scan voting equipment.

Florida's 13th Congressional District spans five counties. The Republican candidate claims to have been elected by a 400-vote margin, which is being challenged in court by the Democrat.

In four of the counties, and on paper absentee ballots in Sarasota County, 1 percent to 5 percent of voters left the congressional race blank. But as a result of a poorly designed touch-screen ballot unique to Sarasota, 13 percent of voters there (18,000 ballots) left it blank.

In this county, the Democrat won with 53 percent of the vote. It is extremely likely that if a single voting procedure had been used in all counties, the Democrat would have easily won the race.

But with touch-screen machines, there is no way to check paper copies of the ballots to see what the voters intended.

In Virginia, Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb was declared the winner over Republican Sen. George Allen by less than 9,000 votes out of 2.4 million, all recorded on touch-screen machines.

There were reports in Florida (and Maryland) of voters touching the name of the Democratic candidate but having the machine record a vote for the Republican. What if this bias were reversed in Virginia, and Republican votes were recorded as Democratic? If this happened with only 0.2 percent of the votes, or 1 in 500, it would mean that Mr. Allen should have won, and the Republicans should still control the U.S. Senate.

It is important to note that adding a paper trail to touch-screen machines wouldn't help in a case such as the one I outlined in Virginia.

But such a calibration error couldn't happen with an optical-scan system.

And in a close election, the paper ballots could be compared with the results from the machines, which would help re-establish trust in our election procedures.

David Marker

Columbia

The writer is chairman of the American Statistical Association's Science and Public Affairs Advisory Committee.

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