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New voting machines finally on horizon

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Seven years later, Maryland finally buying voting machines with a paper trail

In an era that increasingly relies on paperless technology, Maryland is about to revert to using old-fashioned pen and paper to elect its leaders.

The Board of Public Works is expected to approve a $28 million contract Wednesday to replace Maryland's touch-screen voting system with machines that scan paper ballots, which voters will mark with a pen or pencil.

The contract comes more than seven years after the legislature decided the state should replace tens of thousands of touch screens deemed unreliable and susceptible to fraud.

Since then, arguments and tough budget times have repeatedly delayed efforts to replace the machines with a system that has a verifiable paper record.

"We, for a generation of elections, have had no paper trail," said Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat and a leading proponent of scrapping the touch-screen system.

The new system is expected to be in place for the 2016 presidential election.

Maryland was among the first states to abandon paper balloting after the 2000 presidential election, when butterfly ballots and "hanging chads" in Florida threw the results of the contest into doubt for weeks.

The state spent $65 million in 2002 to buy its electronic machines from Diebold Inc., but it wasn't long before a bipartisan coalition began complaining. Glitches, particularly in the electronic poll books, plagued the 2006 primary election and led state leaders to urge voters to cast paper absentee ballots instead.

The problems with the electronic voting machines became less pronounced over the years as officials worked out technical troubles, but they resurfaced during early voting in this year's election.

Republican voters reported the machines "flipped" their votes from GOP nominee Larry Hogan to the Democratic candidate, Anthony G. Brown. The Board of Elections said those problems likely stemmed from user errors, including leaning palms on the touch screen or using a finger nail instead of a fingertip to select a candidate.

"This is long overdue," House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said Tuesday of the new machines. "It's something that the legislature has been asking for at least six years. A paper-verified voter system is essential to restore voter integrity to the system and reduce the errors that we saw in the last election."

Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, said this is the first time the state has both enough money and a qualified vendor to do the project. The state will pay about $14 million, and local governments will cover the rest of the $28 million bill.

Gov. Martin O'Malley had included partial funding for a new system at least twice, but the program never moved forward. One year, the project was put out for bid, but officials concluded there was no company capable of meeting the state's specifications.

Other funding plans have gone awry. Lawmakers voted to use about $2 million in cash from the unused public campaign financing fund to help pay for the machines, but then Heather R. Mizeur's decision to tap into the fund for her Democratic primary bid derailed that plan, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance division at the elections board.

At one point in 2009, state officials estimated an optical scanning system would cost $39 million — a price that incited another round of controversy since the electronic machines were still usable.

The outrage on both sides appears to have subsided. Three prominent groups that were sharply critical of the touch-screen system have either taken down their websites or display a now-disconnected phone number.

Wednesday's vote to award the new contract to Election System & Software LLC of Chicago is not expected to be cast without questions.

Comptroller Peter A. Franchot, an aide said, is expected to ask whether it makes sense to lease the new machines instead of buy them, and about the cost of transitioning to a new voting system.

The Maryland Republican Party criticized O'Malley, a Democrat, for putting the voting machines on the agenda now when he has roughly a month left in office before Republican Larry Hogan takes over.

"It's horrible," Maryland GOP executive director Joe Cluster said. "The O'Malley administration has been tasked to do this for eight years now, and now they're getting to it?"

For advocates though, the vote represents the culmination of a long fight. Susan Greenhalgh, election specialist for the Verified Voting advocacy group, praised the General Assembly decision to require new voting machines.

"It should give Marylanders more trust in the integrity of the system," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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