By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Goodbye, electronic voting. Farewell, fancy touch screen. Maryland and Virginia are going old school after Tuesday's election.
Maryland will scrap its $65 million electronic system and go back to paper ballots in time for the 2010 midterm elections -- and will still be paying for the abandoned system until 2014. In Virginia, localities are moving to paper after the General Assembly voted last year to phase out electronic voting machines as they wear out.
It was just a few years ago that electronic voting machines were heralded as a computerized panacea to the hanging chad, a state-of-the-art system immune to the kinds of hijinks and confusion that some say make paper ballots vulnerable. But now, after concern that the electronic voting machines could crash or be hacked, the two states are swinging away from the systems, saying paper ballots filled out by hand are more reliable, especially in a recount.
The trend reflects a national movement away from electronic voting machines. About a third of all voters will use them Tuesday, down from a peak of almost 40 percent in 2006, according to Election Data Services, a Manassas-based consulting firm specializing in election administration. Every jurisdiction that has changed election systems since 2006 has gone to paper ballots read by optical scan machines, said Kimball Brace, the firm's president. And for the first time in the country's history, fewer jurisdictions will be using electronic machines than in the previous election, he said.
"The battle for the hearts and minds of voters on whether electronic systems are good or bad has been lost," Brace said. The academics and computer scientists who said they were unreliable "have won that battle."
The District has one electronic machine in every precinct. But most people vote on paper ballots, said Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
In Virginia, the law passed last year prohibits localities from purchasing more electronic machines, also known as direct-recording election machines. It could take years to completely switch to paper.
"I think there's a concern that . . . the votes may not be counted correctly," said state Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax). "And with the [machine] there is no backup, and I think that's the greatest concern."
But the move has perplexed some experts who say that after using the electronic touch screens for several elections now, voters have gotten used to them. People use touch-screen machines for many things, such as ordering at McDonald's and taking money out of the bank, and should, advocates say, be able to vote on them.
"We're going to discard tens of millions of dollars to go to a system that is less accurate and secure," said John Willis, an elections expert who was secretary of state under former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D). "The proper question is security and safeguards. It's not to go backwards into the 19th century with paper."
Others, such as Fairfax County General Registrar Rokey W. Suleman II, say there are pluses and minuses with both systems. The touch screens, he said, are easy to use and clearly mark voters' intent. By contrast, voters don't always make their mark definitive on a paper ballot.
But in Virginia and Maryland, the electronic machines don't print a piece of paper that voters can check to make sure their vote was recorded correctly. And that, critics say, means there can't be a reliable recount. Another problem with the electronic machines is that only one person at a time can vote on them. That can make voting take longer, a concern when officials are predicting record turnout Nov. 4.
Paper ballots, which are fed into an optical scan machine that reads them, can help lines move much more quickly because many voters can fill them out at once, officials say. Fairfax has already purchased optical scan machines to back up its touch screens. And on Election Day, elections officers will urge people to vote with paper ballots, Suleman said.
"If voters want to go off in a corner with a clipboard, they can," he said. Otherwise, they'd have to wait for an electronic machine to open up.
During in-person absentee voting in Arlington County, General Registrar Linda Lindberg tried to steer voters toward paper ballots to keep lines moving. But they were "overwhelmingly choosing the machines," she said. "That worries me a little bit about Election Day."
In Maryland, Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the State Board of Elections, has made her preference for touch-screen machines clear, saying in the past that she has "complete faith in the system" and that the machines are "fabulous."
But last year, the General Assembly voted unanimously to discard the touch-screen machines and go to paper ballots by 2010.
It won't be cheap.
The $65 million for the touch-screen machines -- the cost for hardware alone; maintenance costs could add millions more -- was financed through the state Treasurer's Office. While the state continues to pay for the electronic system, switching to paper ballots could cost as much as $40 million by 2011, according to the legislation.
"It makes a person scratch their head and wonder what's going on," said Willis, the former secretary of state. "It's not logical."
But proponents of paper ballots say it's worth it, especially given the fact that the current system doesn't have a voter-verifiable paper trail that can be counted manually in a disputed election.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) supported the legislation because "he wanted a way to manually go back and verify the votes," said spokesman Shaun Adamec. "We couldn't go back and do a manual recount now. We don't have the tools to do that."