Md. Official Resists Call to Change Voting System

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

The state's top elections official declared her confidence in Maryland's voting machines yesterday and said that changing systems seven months before the primary election would be a "catastrophe" and a waste of money.

Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone's comments came one day after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) questioned the reliability of the state's touch-screen machines and called for a system that provides a paper record to verify election results.

Since 2002, Maryland has paid more than $45 million to phase in electronic voting across the state. The security of the machines, manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, has since come under scrutiny, with critics saying computer hackers could manipulate election results.

"We've spent a lot of money on the system, and we're literally going to be throwing it all away," Lamone testified at a hearing on legislation that would require vote verification technology for the upcoming election. "I think you are asking for a catastrophe if you try to change."

Top Democratic lawmakers also criticized what they called Ehrlich's "last-minute endorsement" of paper ballots and called the governor's concerns inconsistent with his prior support for the Diebold machines.

At issue is voter confidence in election results in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election and the adoption of new electronic voting machines across the country. More than two dozen states now have some requirement for paper vote verification.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Montgomery) has tried for two years to require a system in Maryland that can deliver a paper audit.

"There are people that don't feel that full confidence in our system," she said. "It's up to us to try to give the voters in the state confidence."

The September primary would be the first election in which all Maryland jurisdictions use the touch-screen machines. But some lawmakers in both parties yesterday suggested leasing for one year optical scan machines, which use paper ballots.

Diebold officials sought to reassure legislators that the security questions raised in other states, such as California and Florida, were irrelevant to the operation of the machines in Maryland. Meeting behind closed doors with lawmakers, the director of Diebold's election systems, Mark Radke, said he told them "our system has proven to be very accurate."

"It's disturbing to see some of the false information being distributed, because Maryland has proven to have the most accurate voting in the country," he said.

Radke and former Maryland secretary of state John T. Willis cited a report from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that showed Maryland had the lowest rate of voter error in 2004.

Willis, who has studied Maryland elections for 30 years, called concerns about the touch-screen machines "technological hysteria." Advancements in technology, he said, have reduced -- not increased -- the likelihood of mistakes.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said they were "deeply concerned" about the governor's lack of confidence in the board and endorsement of a vote verification system. The cost of switching to such a system, they said, would be $25 million to $50 million.

"This statement could unjustifiably undermine public confidence in the integrity of the state election process," Busch and Miller wrote in a letter to Lamone, asking her to respond quickly to the governor's questions.

Some of the concerns have arisen from a recent test in Florida, where a computer specialist succeeded in hacking into a Diebold machine. That prompted California to review the security and reliability of its Diebold machines.

In Maryland, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly also forced through legislation last month, over the governor's veto, that will allow voters to cast ballots in the week before an election.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) said early voting raises new questions about whether the machines can be secured at multiple sites for multiple days and how elections officials can protect against voting at more than one polling place. "All kinds of questions have come up," he said.

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