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Judge Rules in Favor Of Md. Vote Machines

By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page A03

An Anne Arundel County judge yesterday rejected a challenge to the state's touch-screen voting machines, saying they are more accurate than the paper ballots plaintiffs are seeking to make optional for the November elections.

Circuit Court Judge Joseph P. Manck called the concern that the electronic machines might be vulnerable to tampering "a very real fear," but he found that Maryland officials had "taken all reasonable steps to protect the integrity of the voting process."

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The ruling was a victory for the state's embattled elections administrator, Linda H. Lamone, who has championed electronic voting and was a defendant in the lawsuit. "I'm gratified that the court has ratified our confidence in the voting system," Lamone said. "As the court said, with all the protections we've put in place, my firm belief is that the voters can have confidence in the integrity of the elections process."

Lead plaintiff Linda Schade said the citizens group she co-founded, TrueVoteMD.org, would use the ruling to galvanize Maryland voters to closely monitor the November elections, which she predicted would not go smoothly. "I am very disappointed that Maryland voters will be forced to vote on machines that we believe are illegal under Maryland law and that are clearly very insecure," Schade said.

Ryan P. Phair, who represented Schade and the other plaintiffs, said he would file an appeal today with the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Maryland's machines, manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, were used in four counties in 2002, including Prince George's and Montgomery, and in most jurisdictions across the state in the March primary. Lamone and Schade's group have disagreed over the extent of problems that surfaced during the primary.

In November, the machines are slated to be used in every jurisdiction but Baltimore, which will be allowed to continue using bulkier electronic machines it purchased in 1996.

In his ruling, which followed a three-day hearing last week, Manck wrote: "No system is infallible. No machine is infallible. All experts agree [touch-screen] systems such as these are much more secure and less vulnerable than the paper ballot" or the optical scan machines used in most Maryland jurisdictions in the last presidential election.

The judge also noted the "exorbitant cost," as one expert put it, of deciding now to make paper ballots available in November. With the election so near, Manck said, doing so would "cause much confusion and is clearly against the public interest."

The plaintiffs argued that the state should have decertified the touch-screen machines after independent experts found serious security flaws. Last summer, Johns Hopkins University computer scientists reported that hackers could easily crack the computer code. And in January, consultants hired by the state announced that they were able to gain control of the system, corrupt vote counts and delete election results.

Among the remedies plaintiffs are seeking is the creation of a paper receipt that could enhance voters' confidence by listing the candidates for whom they voted. The voters would place the receipts in boxes so audits could determine the accuracy of the electronic results. The plaintiffs are also asking that voters be permitted to request paper ballots.

An unfavorable ruling might have had severe consequences for Lamone. The State Board of Elections, to whom she reports, recently borrowed an investigator from another state agency to look into complaints from local election officials about her leadership. The move has fueled speculation that the five-member board, a majority of whom are Republicans, is maneuvering to oust Lamone, a Democrat appointed in 1997 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). By law, Lamone can be fired only for cause.

Board Chairman Gilles W. Burger has called an emergency closed-session meeting of the panel for today, although the subject matter was not disclosed. Separately yesterday, Richard E. Menikheim, one of the two Democrats on the board, resigned. Menikheim has missed the last several board meetings because of health problems. By law, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) will name his replacement, but he must select a Democrat.

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

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