Trust the computer. That's what Maryland told Linda Schade.
The Takoma Park resident and Green Party member believes in saving the environment, but also believes that a few trees are worth sacrificing for democracy. She is a co-founder of Truevotemd.org, and among the determined activists around the country who claim that electronic voting machines -- like the touch-screen devices that will count Marylanders' votes this November -- are so shot through with problems that no one will know whether their votes were counted correctly, or at all.
"At first you say, 'God, a computer glitch, is this for real?'" Schade said. "Because in some ways it feels a little bit abstract. But once you get into it a little bit, you realize this is a very serious problem."
She says the machines should offer printed receipts and that voters uncomfortable with the machines should have the option of turning in a paper ballot. Earlier this month the state's highest court upheld a circuit judge's ruling against an injunction that would have forced changes for the upcoming election. As the issue stands now, residents will vote paperless Nov. 2, although the case brought by Schade and seven other plaintiffs -- including several state elected officials and candidates -- will return to the lower court and could still bear on future elections in Maryland.
"It wasn't a surprising decision," Schade said. "At this point it really is challenging to find remedies that are implementable" by Nov. 2. Maryland election administrators, like those in other states, have argued that it is too late to establish a "paper trail" that could be used to verify votes independent of the data issued by the machines.
Schade's quixotic quest illustrates a growing awareness of the fragile nature of democracy's keystone principle. This year, some 6 million Washington-area voters will tap computer screens instead of pulling levers, punching cards or marking ballots. Some of them have used the machines before, but this year will see their most widespread use yet. It is a key test of their reliability as they take a major part in determining the outcome of what might be one of the closest presidential elections in American history.
Many have championed "direct recording electronic" voting as the only replacement to the antiquated systems that spawned disasters such as the 2000 Florida presidential election voting debacle, but some predict that they will punch a gaping hole in the nation's democratic fabric.
"I see electronic voting machines as undermining democracies," said former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "What could happen is an election with less credibility than the presidential election in 2000 had."
Some voting machine makers already are testing versions of their machines with printers attached, but that could add hundreds of dollars to the cost of the hardware. State and local governments have already spent millions of dollars on computerized voting machines, and do not relish shelling out more cash. Local elections boards say that even if they wanted to, they can't do it in time for this election because the machines would have to undergo a new round of federal and state certification.
Maryland's Voting Battle
Paper trails will not make voting more secure, said Maryland State Board of Elections Administrator Linda Lamone. "The state has complete control over the entire process," she said. "It's a 'Chicken Little' issue."
Lamone said successfully hacking the voting system "would be extremely unlikely. ... We've developed a security plan for the entire agency, everything from the computers on our desks all the way to the voting system."
Maryland became one of the flashpoints in the electronic voting debate after it spent $55 million on machines made by Diebold Election Systems. A 2003 report co-authored by Johns Hopkins University professor Aviel D. Rubin subsequently determined that the machines could be subjected to manipulation by hackers. In addition, a study commissioned by Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) and conducted by SAIC Corp. revealed security problems, as did a study commissioned by the state Department of Legislative Services, conducted by Columbia-based RABA Technologies.
All this prompted Truevotemd.org's more than 2,000 members to demand the right to vote on paper, but the elections board refused.