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Md. needs to switch to paper ballots

In response to your editorial, "How the Votes are Counted" (Sept. 16), if Maryland is truly concerned about election results that are not only verifiable but also available much more quickly on election night, we would move as quickly as possible to the optical scan voting system mandated in the law passed by the General Assembly in 2007.

The reasons for this are spelled out clearly in your editorial. The time-consuming poll closing procedures necessitated by the cumbersome touch-screen voting equipment are directly related to the system's insecurity, unverifiability and the sheer quantity of machines required to conduct the election.

I have been serving as a chief election judge in Prince George's County since 2004. Here are the steps required to close our voting machines on election night:

1. Check and record the "ballots cast" and "system" totals on each machine. Close the election on each machine. Unlock and open the machine's printer compartment. Print out two copies of the results from each machine. The first copy prints on the same continuous roll as the morning report and has to be rolled up by hand as it comes out of the printer. It is signed at the bottom by both chief judges in the precinct, rolled up and returned with the memory cards. A second, shorter copy of the totals report is then printed out, signed by election judges and posted near the entrance of the polling place with the morning report tapes. This process takes about 10 minutes per machine. My precinct had 12 machines on Tuesday, so about two hours in all. In the 2008 general election we had 17. Maryland averages about 10 voting machines per precinct, so on average, about 100 minutes is needed for this step.

2. Check the tamper-evident sticker covering the power compartment lock, making sure that it has not been tampered with and that the number printed on it matches the number recorded in the morning when the tape was put onto the machine. Remove the sticker and put it on the back of the election integrity report. Unlock the cover of the compartment containing the power button and memory card. Power off the machine and remove the memory card from it. Verify that the serial number on the memory card matches the serial number listed on the election integrity report.

3. Relock the compartment, put a new tamper-evident sticker over the lock and record the number of the new sticker. Close up the machine by folding down the touch-screen, folding in the side flaps and closing and fastening the lid. Relock the padlock. Lock the machine with a numbered wire seal. Record the seal number on the Election Integrity Report. Both chief judges initial the Election Integrity Report on the line for each machine attesting that all of the seal numbers recorded are correct. Steps two and three together take about another 10 minutes for each machine, so another 100 minutes on average.

4) Count the voter authority cards for each machine — the slips of cash-register-receipt paper signed by the voter at check-in, which are retained in an envelope attached to each machine. Verify that the number of voter authority cards matches the number of votes cast on each machine. Because these paper slips are flimsy and stick together, they are difficult to count, so it is usually a good idea to have them counted by more than one person to ensure that the count is accurate. This takes about 5 to 15 minutes for each machine, depending on the number of voters who used that machine, so another 50 to 150 minutes on average.

5. Baltimore City does not do these final two steps, but many counties do. Put the memory card from each machine into the "accumulator" machine and total up the votes from the entire precinct. Print out two copies of this tape, one returned with the other tapes and one posted with the tapes in the precinct. Move the accumulator machine to a phone line. Insert a modem card into the machine. Connect with the server and upload the "unofficial" precinct results to the county elections board. It often takes several attempts to connect and transmit successfully. And finally, close, seal and secure the voting unit used as the accumulator, remembering to eject the memory card first and return it with the other cards.

Some of these steps happen in tandem, with every election judge in the precinct playing a role, but they are inherently time-consuming. Contrast that with the steps required to shut down a single optical scanner. Every vote cast in the precinct is already accumulated on one machine, so election results for that precinct are available as soon as the last voter has inserted their ballot into it and the election has ended. You can have election results within a few minutes of closing the polls. And best of all, if a race is close and you need to do a recount, you can always go back and check the original record of the voter's intent to verify that the votes were counted correctly. There is no way to do an independent recount with our paperless electronic voting equipment.

Your editorial says election judges work a 13-plus-hour day, but that is a huge understatement. The procedures required to open and close the polls add several hours to that day, especially if problems are encountered in closing, or it there is a long line of voters at 8 p.m. when the polls close. In Prince George's County, election judges report to the polling place the night before the election to get the voting room ready, post signage, set the equipment in place and plug in the machines to charge the batteries. Then we return to the polling place by 5:00 or 5:30 the next morning to be sure we have the precinct open by 7 a.m., and I rarely get home before midnight. In the 2008 General Election, I did not get home until 3:30 a.m., after having left home at 4:30 the previous morning to drive to my polling place. That's a 23-hour day, which makes it unsurprising that our counties have difficulty recruiting qualified, conscientious chief judges willing to take on the responsibility of supervising a polling place.

Retirees used to be the mainstay of polling place staff, but every election we lose some of our older judges who don't have the stamina required for such a long day. My co-chief, a retired electrician, has already notified me that he won't sign on again after the November election if we keep using this equipment. His wife, a long-serving election judge who remembers the days of lever machines, has decided to resign before the November election. I will probably join them unless we move to the simpler, less cumbersome optical scan equipment before our 2012 elections.

Rebecca Wilson, Hyattsville

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