Touch-Screen Voting Fallible, Ehrlich Says

Touch-screen machines were in use in Davidsonville, as well as in nearly every other Maryland polling location, during the 2004 election.
Touch-screen machines were in use in Davidsonville, as well as in nearly every other Maryland polling location, during the 2004 election. (By James A. Parcell -- TWP)
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has embraced a legislative proposal to abandon the state's touch-screen voting machines for the coming election, in which he is a candidate, and to lease others that provide a paper record to verify results.

"Maryland's lack of a paper trail means we are no longer a national leader in elections systems and that our equipment is susceptible to system failures," the governor wrote in a letter to be delivered today to the chairman of the State Board of Elections. "It is inexcusable for us not to be prepared for a catastrophic system failure in the 2006 cycle."

Ehrlich's endorsement is the latest turn in the debate over Maryland's electronic voting machines that were used in nearly every polling place in the 2004 election. The state has committed $90 million to the system, which critics say is vulnerable to tampering.

State Elections Board Chairman Gilles W. Burger and Administrator Linda H. Lamone have defended the current system, made by Diebold Election Systems, as secure and the most accurate in the nation.

Switching to optical scan machines, which use paper ballots, is "not ideal," Burger said in a letter to Ehrlich late last month, because it would introduce such problems as printing errors and questions of voter intent. Burger and Lamone say they also are concerned that voters in the state's largest jurisdictions -- Prince George's and Montgomery counties and the city of Baltimore -- have never used an optical scan system for voting at the polls.

The governor's letter is part of an ongoing debate between Maryland's political leaders and elections officials about how and when voters should cast ballots in the 2006 election.

In January, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly reversed Ehrlich's veto of legislation to allow early voting at select locations five days before an election.

Last month, Ehrlich -- who championed the Diebold machines in 2003 -- wrote to Burger to express concern about reliability questions raised in California and Florida about those machines, which Ehrlich said would be exacerbated by early voting. A review of California's voting systems found more than a dozen vulnerabilities that security analysts said could be fixed; the California secretary of state has granted conditional certification.

In the February letter, Ehrlich told Burger that he had lost confidence in the elections board to conduct accurate contests. He backed a paper trail but did not offer a specific plan. More than two dozen states now have some requirement for vote verification.

In the latest letter, of which a copy was given to The Washington Post, Ehrlich calls on Burger to endorse legislation by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) that would require the state to lease an optical scan system for the coming election. Hixson has said it would cost the state less than $16 million; the elections board has estimated it at more than $60 million.

The bill was approved by Hixson's committee Friday. Its chances in the Senate are less certain because Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) does not favor leasing new machines for the 2006 elections.

Ehrlich's latest letter also recommends that there be two independent security studies of the electronic machines and that the board "aggressively and publicly" push to delay plans for early voting.

The elections board and Lamone, a Democrat first appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), have been the subject of controversy in Annapolis in recent years. Ehrlich appointees, including Burger, tried to oust Lamone in 2004 but were blocked in court. Last year, Democrats passed a bill that provided her with additional job protection and gave party leaders control over board positions reserved for Democrats.

Miller has dismissed Ehrlich's concerns as a political attempt to postpone early voting. Many political observers believe that early voting would increase turnout generally benefit Democrats in a state where Democratic registration surpasses Republican by nearly 2 to 1.

"It's an attempt to cause consternation," Miller said. "The only thing new is early voting, and the governor is afraid that will tilt the election."

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