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State's Poll Reposition

Legislation would shelve Maryland’s touch-screen voting machines.

Maryland legislators are scrambling to pass emergency legislation that will assure that voting in the 2006 elections will produce a verifiable paper trail.

The House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill March 9 that requires the state to shelve its touch-screen voting machines for 2006 and lease optical-scan machines that provide a paper record, then perform a statewide audit of the September and November votes. The bill is on its way to the Senate, where it is expected to face much tougher fight.

“We have Florida in 2000; we have what happened in Ohio in 2004. And people are concerned … that we could have a Maryland in 2006,” said Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15), who represents much of Potomac. “I am very, very concerned that Florida 2000 will be Maryland 2006.”

The now-rancorous fight over verifiable voting in Maryland traces back to the disputed presidential election of 2000. Following the dispute, states hurried to upgrade punch-ballot voting machines. In 2003, Maryland became one of the first states to acquire touch-screen computer machines, produced by Texas-based Diebold Election Systems.

“We were the lab-rat state for this issue,” said Alex Zeese, an organizer for True Vote Maryland, which advocates for verifiable voting systems.

“There was the 2000 debacle and everyone was trying to figure out what do we do,” Zeese said, but states like Maryland and Georgia moved too quickly.

Voting technology may see a long-term overhaul, but Maryland spent more than $60 million to acquire the machines that voters — and many legislators — do not trust, he said.

Del. Jean Cryor, who sits on the Election Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, agreed.

“This is an extraordinarily expensive error,” Cryor said. “They should not have jumped for these new machines.”

RESEARCH STUDIES conducted at Johns Hopkins University and other institutions have shown that the touch-screen voting machines are vulnerable to hackers and memory failures.

Calling for a recount from one of the Diebold touch-screen machines amounts to “[hitting] the print key another time,” Zeese said.

The optical-scan machines use paper ballots that are then fed into a scanner and read. The voting machine allows voters to confirm that their choices have been recorded correctly, then prints a secure “receipt,” which is kept on file at the polling station.

The idea of a paper trail has wide support in both houses of the legislature and from the Governor. But the agreement ends there. Senate President Michael Miller (D) has said he will oppose the house legislation in the senate. Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. (R) so far hasn’t backed calls for change with budget allocations. At the center of the fight is Maryland Board of Elections Administrator Linda Lamone, who Miller has staunchly backed but others like Cryor have criticized.

Garagiola said he would support the House legislation if it reaches the Senate floor. It must first pass the 11-member Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

One proposal for creating a paper trail it to have Diebold retrofit its touch-screen machines, which would cost $55 million but could not be completed in time for the 2006 elections. Another proposal calls for permanently implementing the optical-scan machines. Others would revert to older technology or look elsewhere.

“It’s an absolute mess. And it’s not like it came us like a shot in the dark,” Cryor said, stressing that Lamone could have asked Diebold for a paper trail at any time in the past three years.

Voter verification legislation has failed in each of the past two General Assembly sessions.

That leaves the state scrambling to implement something and train election officials in time for September primaries that could include very close races.

“I don’t want to be in a position where we’re looking back and saying, ‘If only we had done something to address [this] sooner,’” Garagiola said.

“Pray as hard as you can that everybody wins by a landslide because if you have any close elections we’re going to have really tough questions to answer,” Cryor said.