Md. Election Problems Fuel Push for Paper Record

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

The primary day debacle in Montgomery and Prince George's counties will add momentum to regional efforts to ensure that election systems create a paper record of each vote, according to some elected officials and activists critical of paperless balloting.

They say the crisis at the polls in Florida during the 2000 presidential race, which prompted many states to switch to electronic voting, forced the adoption of overly complex systems that now must be simplified.

An aide to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is seeking reelection in November, said heightened concerns about electronic voting in last week's primary would strengthen calls for a return to a paper-based system.

Precinct judges in Montgomery and Prince George's counties have reported various machine-related problems, including computers that misidentified the party affiliations of voters, electronic voter registration lists that froze and voting-machine memory cards whose contents could not be electronically transmitted. The electronic voter lists, or "e-poll books," were used for the first time in Maryland.

Ehrlich remains "wary about the use of these machines in the upcoming elections," said policy adviser Joseph M. Getty, though the governor has announced he will take whatever steps are necessary to protect the security and reliability of the state's voting system.

Activists in Virginia said they hope Maryland's problems will inspire renewed efforts to require that all voting systems in the commonwealth produce a paper record of each vote. The voting in Virginia's June primary went smoothly, and Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections, said she has not felt "a lot of unease in the population" over electronic voting.

Jensen said she is worried that opponents of electronic voting will exploit Maryland's troubles, which were partially the result of human error, and "turn this into a machine issue."

The District has a dual system in which voters at each polling station have a choice between voting electronically or casting a paper ballot that is read by an optical scanner. There were no significant problems at the polls Tuesday, but community activist Dorothy Brizill said she hopes the Board of Elections and Ethics will still conduct a review.

In Maryland, Ehrlich has requested that Linda H. Lamone, the administrator of the State Board of Elections, appear Wednesday before a three-member panel that includes the governor. Ehrlich, who has clashed frequently with Lamone, told her in a letter that last week's problems "raise questions about insufficient training, management and oversight of Maryland elections."

Deputy Administrator Ross Goldstein said Lamone "is reviewing the letter and will respond."

The outcomes of primary races for a congressional seat and two General Assembly seats remain undetermined as a result of voting irregularities.

In Montgomery County, where primary day began in chaos after election workers forgot to provide the plastic cards needed to access the machines, 10,000 to 12,000 voters had to use provisional paper ballots. The counting of provisional votes statewide will begin tomorrow and in Montgomery could take two or three days because of the volume, county officials said.

Meanwhile, Donna Edwards, who ran against Rep. Albert R. Wynn for the 4th District Democratic nomination, has said she will file a lawsuit because of concerns about the security of voting machines that were not returned promptly to the Prince George's Board of Elections.

Wynn leads by fewer than 3,000 votes in a district that stretches from Prince George's into a slice of Montgomery.

Both candidates in the close race for the Democratic nomination for Prince George's executive -- the disappointed challenger, Rushern L. Baker III, and the victorious incumbent, Jack B. Johnson -- also have called for an investigation of the county's voting process.

Kevin Zeese, an independent candidate for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat and a longtime critic of electronic systems that do not provide a "paper trail," acknowledged that many problems in Maryland were caused by human error. Even so, he said, "the real problem [with electronic machines] continues. We can't tell whether the result really reflects the will of the people. There's no way to audit an electronic count."

Ehrlich pushed legislation this year that would have required Maryland to adopt paper ballots and optical scanners, but the measure died in the state Senate.

Several efforts to institute a paper record also died in the Virginia legislature this year. Carrie Nixon, a lawyer who leads the New Electoral Reform Alliance for Virginia, a nonpartisan group that has pressed for changes in the commonwealth's election system, said she hopes that Maryland's problems will give the initiatives another life.

Virginia's elections have run well in recent years, but Nixon said volunteer lawyers participating in an election-monitoring program organized by the Democratic National Committee in 2004 reported 117 problems with individual machines at about 600 polling stations. "These types of problems do give people pause with respect to the integrity of the system," she said.

Jensen said that not a single vote was lost in 2004 and that 8,000 to 10,000 voting machines were in use on Election Day.

In the District, voters have been able to choose between casting electronic and paper ballots since 2004, said Alice P. Miller, executive director of the Board of Elections and Ethics. Most voters still prefer paper, she said, but the number opting for an electronic ballot has risen with each election.

Brizill, the community activist, said she has visited polling sites where the electronic voting machine "sits vacant and not used, all day long."

Staff writer Christian Davenport contributed to this report.

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