MARYLAND VOTERS will never know for sure whether their election choices last year were recorded correctly -- and the same uncertainty could haunt them next year if lawmakers again fail to address a serious defect in the touch-screen voting machines used throughout the state. When functioning properly -- and the state elections administrator, Linda H. Lamone, insists that nearly all the machines did work last time -- they are said to be as accurate as they are efficient. But without a paper trail showing each vote cast, who's to know? And what about the machines that did freeze or had mechanical problems? Voters should not have to take it on faith; yet as it stands, there is no way to conduct a solid recount or audit.
Last year, bills to require paper receipts that can be checked by voters before their selections are officially recorded died in conference committee at the end of the session. This year, supporters from both parties in both houses are pressing for committee approvals of measures sponsored by Del. Karen S. Montgomery (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County). Action could come this week. Supporters cite testimony by computer experts that even though no major problems were evident last year, there could have been troubles hidden in the software.
The technology exists for machines to create "voter-verified audit trails," and Maryland should have it. A few lawmakers have been backing measures that would establish some sort of independent audit system that would be more complicated and less efficient; it would use software that would enable voters to verify their choices on a Web site using encoded receipts. Instead of experimenting with a new and possibly more expensive system, lawmakers concerned about the possibilities of tainted election results should vote now to get a paper-trail system in place for next year's elections. Still other legislation would delay a decision for another year, to restudy options that already have undergone multiple reviews. However well the system really worked last year -- which no one can verify -- the integrity of the voting process demands the best possible protections.