Voting Machines Had Defective Part

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

The maker of Maryland's electronic voting system replaced a flawed electronic component in several thousand touch-screen voting machines in 2005, state election officials acknowledged this week.

To eliminate unpredictable "screen freezes" that have occurred since the machines were first used in Maryland in 2002, Diebold Election Systems installed new system boards in about 4,700 voting machines from four Maryland counties: Allegany, Dorchester, Montgomery and Prince George's.

The screen freezes do not cause votes to be lost, officials said, but they confuse voters and election judges who sometimes wonder whether votes cast on a frozen machine will be counted.

The acknowledgment of the repairs came in response to queries from The Washington Post and sheds further light on Maryland's troubled transition to electronic voting. Critics said it raises concerns about whether the state and company officials have kept the public adequately informed about problems with a system that cost taxpayers $106 million.

State officials said this week that they learned after the November 2004 election that a flawed system board was the source of the screen-freeze problem. But documents show that Diebold had diagnosed the problem early that year.

Ross Goldstein, deputy state elections administrator, defended Diebold's handling of the problem. "They have updated all the units, and the problem has been resolved," he said.

Mike Morrill, Diebold's Maryland spokesman, said the company had not completed its research into screen freezes until early 2005, when it agreed to replace all the system boards as the only way to guarantee that the problem would not recur.

He said the flawed system boards were confined to the four counties because other counties received machines with updated system boards. Montgomery experienced screen freezes more often than the others, Morrill said.

The screen freezes are unrelated to the problems experienced in September's primary, when Diebold's electronic voter-registration machines rebooted without warning in every Maryland precinct. The rebooting was caused by a software defect, which Diebold says has been corrected.

Even so, the two leading candidates for governor -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) -- have called on voters to use absentee ballots in the election, citing uncertainties about the reliability of Maryland's system.

Disclosure Issues

State and Diebold officials have been discreet in discussing the replacement of the system boards -- the core electronic component of the voting machines -- to address the screen freezes.

Morrill, the Diebold spokesman, said the company had "publicly disclosed" information about the problem and its solution in communications with the State Board of Elections staff, including a six-page letter from an executive to state Administrator of Elections Linda H. Lamone written in reply to her questions about the system boards.

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