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Back to the future on voting

Fourteen years ago, when the nation was riveted by the spectacle of poll workers parsing the differences between dimpled and dangling chads after the presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Marylanders could rest fairly easy. A few counties still used old-fashioned voting machines, though not quite like the ones that caused so much havoc in Florida, and the vast majority already had more modern systems. Baltimore City had a touch-screen voting system — then considered the most advanced in the state — and 19 counties employed optical scan paper ballots.

But thanks to the national voting reform movement that came out of the Bush-Gore election, Maryland decided to adopt uniform voting technology state-wide. Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening set up a commission to study the issue, and it came back with a recommendation for what seemed like the indisputable system of the future — touch-screen voting machines that promised to make casting a ballot as simple as using an ATM. No more cumbersome paper ballots to print and store. No more problems with people voting for more than one candidate for the same office. No more concerns about running out of ballots. No more privacy concerns for those with limited vision.

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This week, just eight years after the machines became standard state-wide, Maryland's Board of Public Works voted to dump them and go back to what is essentially the same kind of technology most of the state had in the first place.

The issue was not that the touch-screen machines failed to work as advertised. The state encountered some problems along the way, but by and large, they did what they were supposed to do. (The bigger frustrations came from initial glitches with a separate system to check in voters at polling places.) The issue was that voters never fully trusted the machines because there was no way to verify that they registered your ballot the way you wanted it and no way to check whether the machines' tabulations were made in error. Reports this year that when some people attempted to vote for Republican candidates, the machine's display showed a check mark next to the Democrat's name probably were a result of voter error, as election workers contended, and there were no reported cases in which the error was not fixed before the voter hit "submit." But the fact that there was no way to prove after the fact that a vote had been counted properly magnified the anxiety.

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Computer science experts at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere warned even before the state started field testing its machines that they were vulnerable to hackers. Whether those fears were ever truly realistic given other security measures the state took was almost beside the point to the public and to the legislators who voted seven years ago to require a return to paper ballots. (The matter only came before the Board of Public Works this week because of repeated budget constraints or bidding problems.)

Optical scan ballots aren't a panacea. They can be susceptible to voter errors in ways the touch screen ballots are not, and they present a host of logistical concerns related to the production and safekeeping of physical ballots. They aren't fraud-proof either; people have stuffed ballot boxes with paper since the invention of the ballot box. But they do offer the opportunity for a meaningful recount in a way that the state's touch-screen machines did not.

The specific technology the state is adopting has some advantages over the old paper scan systems. It will come with a limited number of touch-screen machines that produce voter-verifiable paper ballots. At least one will be placed in each precinct to accommodate the needs of those with disabilities, and they will be used at all early voting locations to cope with the multiplicity of ballot styles that are used there. The new system also offers much better tools to review ballots after the fact if there is a dispute.

But perhaps the smartest part of the state's switch was the decision to lease rather than purchase the machines. The Board of Public Works approved a contract worth $28 million that will cover the state during the presidential election cycle, with the option to renew for two more two-year terms. As Elections Administrator Linda Lamone explained to the board, that allows for the possibility that voting technology will change again and prevents us from being locked into any one system. Given Maryland's experience of the last 10 years, that seems wise.

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