Tuesday, November 7, 2006

WITH IMPORTANT state offices and control of Congress at stake, it is vital that voters not be deterred today.

The potential obstacles are most apparent in Maryland, where Republican and Democratic officials sparked an unprecedented run on absentee ballots with the unsubstantiated suggestion that electronic voting machines can't be trusted. The hype for absentee voting, sounded by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and echoed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), preyed on fears created by the disarray of the September primary. But human error caused the most serious problems; the vote-counting machines worked without apparent problems.

Distrust of electronic voting is not limited to Maryland. Theories, many fanciful, abound about the ease of hacking into voting machines. There has been no evidence of that occurring, and the layers of scrutiny and security in force on Election Day cast doubt on whether experiments hatched in the privacy of a lab could be carried out in public. We support a verifiable paper trail to add a layer of safety and bolster public confidence. But there's a thin line between raising reasonable questions and persuading voters that there's no point in turning out. Happily, a recent Post poll showed that despite all the controversy, an overwhelming majority of Maryland voters are confident that their votes will be counted.

Then there's the Republican manual for its poll watchers in Maryland. The tone of the GOP message ("Your most important duty as a poll watcher is to challenge people who present themselves to vote but who are not authorized to vote") compares unfavorably with that of the Democrats to their poll watchers ("Your primary job is to ensure that every eligible voter who wants to vote gets to vote"). But the Democratic allegation that the GOP approach represents a conspiracy to suppress the vote is overwrought and unsupported. Much of the GOP manual mirrors state elections board procedures. State elections officials -- who reviewed the materials of both parties -- found incorrect information from the Democrats as well as the Republicans.

Voters should go to the polls today and, if challenged, insist on their right under law to cast a provisional ballot.

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