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Planning an Escape From Electronic Voting Machines

By Ann E. Marimow and Matthew Mosk
Thursday, February 23, 2006

As the General Assembly debates the reliability of Maryland's voting systems, a Montgomery County legislator has taken steps to ditch the state's electronic machines for the coming election and switch to paper ballots.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson , chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, wants the state to use optical scan machines. She has proposed legislative amendments to ensure that the systems can be leased in time for the September primary.

"The controversy here is about people's faith in having their vote recorded," Hixson said yesterday. "We want to make sure there's an accurate count in this election."

Maryland has committed to paying $90 million to bring in electronic voting machines manufactured by Diebold Elections Systems for use statewide. The state's elections chief, Linda H. Lamone , defended the setup as one of the most reliable in the nation in a meeting yesterday with The Washington Post's editorial board. Lamone also cast doubt on whether optical scan machines would be available for the fall elections.

But Robb McGinnis , regional sales manager for Election Systems and Software, said yesterday that the Nebraska-based company can deliver if it is given enough notice.

"We're telling everyone, if you give us the go-ahead shortly, we'll provide the equipment," McGinnis said. "It's all timing."

Hixson estimated it would cost Maryland $16 million to lease the machines for this year's elections.

Last week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr . (R) said he had lost confidence in the State Board of Elections' "ability to conduct fair and accurate elections," in part because of questions about the security of the Diebold machines and a new law that will allow voters to cast ballots in the week before the election.

Two Cents on an $11.5 Billion Deal

Maryland Sen. Leo E. Green introduced legislation yesterday that would direct the attorney general to intervene in Constellation Energy Group's proposed merger with a Florida power company.

Constellation, the state's largest utility with more than 1 million customers, announced plans in December to execute an $11.5 billion merger with FPL Group that would create one of the nation's largest electricity suppliers.

Green (D-Prince George's) said the resolution, which has strong backing from Senate leaders, is intended to convey lawmakers' concerns that state regulators will not adequately consider the effect the proposed merger would have on Maryland consumers.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said he worries that the merger could saddle Maryland customers with inflated bills to help the company cover the cost of repairing hurricane-damaged power lines in Florida.

Constellation has defended the plan and expressed confidence in the regulatory process. But in an e-mail last week, a company spokesman said the firm would not object to having additional eyes on the deal.

"If the Attorney General's Office, which routinely intervenes in Maryland Public Service Commission proceedings on behalf of state agencies, were to intervene, Constellation Energy would have no objection," said spokesman Robert Gould .

Doubling Up on the Cigarette Tax

The state tax on a pack of cigarette would increase by $1 to one of the highest levels in the nation, under legislation debated in the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday.

The increase to $2 a pack would raise at least $155 million, according to the bill's sponsors. Vincent DeMarco , president of the Maryland Health Care for All! Coalition, told the committee that the legislation would reduce teen smoking and expand health care coverage to more than 50,000 uninsured residents.

Dennis C. McCoy , a lobbyist for tobacco company Philip Morris, said the money being raised for a "broad social problem" should come from all residents -- not just the 18 percent who choose to smoke. The tax increase, he added, would drive residents to buy cigarettes online or out-of-state.

Maryland increased the cigarette tax by 30 cents in 1999 and by 34 cents in 2002. If the state rate climbs to $2, Maryland would be tied with Michigan and Maine for the fourth-highest tobacco tax in the country.

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