Vote trail hits dead end in Senate

The Baltimore Sun

Senate puts off voting machine paper receipts The Maryland Senate effectively sank a bill yesterday that would have required voting machines to generate a paper record that could be reviewed prior to election results being certified as official.

"This is obviously a ploy to kill any hope of getting it done in time for an election," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored a House version of the bill. The measure mandated that the paper records be kept at polling places at a cost of $17 million to the state for fiscal year 2008 and $1.5 million for fiscal year 2009.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. was reluctant to back the Senate measure, which differed in some details, at a time when the state faces the prospect of significant deficits. Rather than vote on the bill, senators decided to send it back to committee. With two weeks left in the 90-day session, the measure is unlikely to be resurrected.

"It's a dead issue here," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the majority leader and bill sponsor.

Hixson's bill, which the House already had approved, could be considered by the Senate, but lawmakers said that is improbable.

In Maryland, election records are kept in electronic touch-screen machines that do not provide receipts. Voting rights advocates say receipts would enable officials to count ballots should anyone question the results.

The lack of a verifiable paper trail became a major issue last year, with then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, expressing concern about the integrity of the vote before his 2006 face-off with his Democratic foe, then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Last year, the House of Delegates approved similar paper-trail legislation, but the proposal died in the Senate. Linda H. Lamone, Maryland's elections chief, has warned lawmakers that rushing to implement a new system could complicate ballot counting in the 2008 presidential election.

Robert Ferraro, a spokesman for SAVE Our Votes, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group advocating a paper trail, said Kasemeyer's bill was amended to exclude an important tool in ensuring fair elections: audits.

"The original bill was for a voter-verified paper audit trail," Ferraro said. "The amended legislation struck out 10 of the 11 pages of the original legislation and replaced it with language that did not require audits."

Options wanted

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who sits on the Senate committee that changed Kasemeyer's bill, said he believes advocates are unhappy with the changes because they prefer the state only use optical scanning equipment to check the paper ballots.

"That's all they want," Pinsky said. "We want other options." He did not elaborate.

The Senate also delayed the vote yesterday on a measure to award the state's Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. Proponents of the bill said it could help prevent a situation like the 2000 presidential contest, where a few hundred votes in Florida determined the outcome -- even though Democrat Al Gore won the national popular vote over Republican George W. Bush.

Primary date

Senators moved a step closer to approving a change in Maryland's primary date, an effort aimed at drawing attention to the state as the 2008 presidential contest heats up and campaigns ponder where to spend their advertising dollars. The proposal, which the House approved yesterday, would move the state's primary election up from the first Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in February.

O'Malley is pushing the plan, an attempt to craft a regional primary with Virginia and Washington.

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