Paper-Trail Politics

Monday, February 20, 2006

AFTER DAWDLING for a good two years and defending a certifiably untrustworthy voting process in Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced last week that he, too, has lost confidence in the state's ability to conduct fair and secure elections this fall. A curiously tardy call, Governor, but welcome aboard: Time is short, but now an all-out effort to clean up the system before the elections can and should begin.

Lawmakers in both parties have warned repeatedly that the touch-screen machines that have been in use are seriously flawed. Voters cannot know for sure whether their choices are correctly recorded and tallied because the machines do not produce any paper trails showing each vote cast; that makes an audit impossible. Computer experts note, too, that results can be rigged without risk of detection.

Now Mr. Ehrlich has joined the paper-trail chorus, echoing concerns raised not only in Annapolis but also in dozens of states about machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems. The governor's newfound angst just might have been stirred by a defeat he suffered on an election issue only last month; the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode his veto of measures that allow votes to be cast five days before a scheduled election and voters to cast provisional ballots at any polling place. In his latest announcement he cited Maryland's lack of readiness for the next elections, adding that early voting should be delayed.

State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone insisted Thursday that all is well, that the machines are reliable and that "you are asking for a catastrophe if you try to change" the system. After all, who needs audits or some paper record of how votes were cast? Just take it on faith that your vote was duly recorded and that the results are right.

Instead of picking up on Mr. Ehrlich's change of heart, some Democratic leaders changed their political tune. They are now belittling the main problem. As reported by The Post's Ann E. Marimow, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) charged that Mr. Ehrlich's comments were an attempt to "create confusion and chaos" to dissuade the General Assembly from moving ahead on early voting. Oh, maybe; but if the Democrats are serious about creating trust in the system for this year's elections, and if Mr. Ehrlich really is on the same page, five additional days of voting shouldn't be an insurmountable hurdle. If the five-day voting initiative did develop preparation difficulties of its own, it might have to be postponed, as Mr. Ehrlich has urged. Similarly, costs of retooling might put some limitations on how much could be done by fall.

Still, machines that produce paper trails are a must. The political dickering and dueling that compounded this mess has got to be cut short. The integrity of Maryland's voting process is at stake. It must not be imperiled as voters prepare to record their preferences in some of the most important state and local elections in years.

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