The State Board of Elections is trying to decide whether nearly two dozen Howard County residents, who used paper ballots in the March primary instead of the new touch-screen voting machines, will have their votes counted.

Several of the residents spoke during a hearing in Annapolis last week and demanded that they not be disenfranchised.

Saying that election judges never should have offered voters paper ballots in March, state officials ordered the Howard County Board of Elections to throw them out. A similar mix-up occurred in several other counties, state elections officials said, resulting in about 100 votes being tossed out

But Helen K. Kolbe of Columbia's Wilde Lake Village decided to fight back. After learning her vote was not counted, Kolbe identified 20 other Howard residents who also requested paper ballots.

"These people are serious about it, " said Kolbe, 76. "They are passionate, and to them a vote is too important to throw away."

Guy Harriman, chairman of the Howard County Board of Elections, said Kolbe and other residents were given paper ballots because of a bureaucratic mistake. He said state officials did not tell local election officials that paper ballots were prohibited until the weekend before the March 2 primary.

Although Kolbe did not learn about the mix-up until after the State Board of Elections had certified the results, she and the other voters were granted a hearing under the Help America Vote Act, a federal statute passed by Congress in 2002 that guarantees disenfranchised voters a hearing.

"If you ignore your rights, they go away," Kolbe said.

Mary Wagner, a deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, said she does not expect a decision soon.

Since the state switched to the touch-screen system, some have expressed concern about security issues, such as potential hackers, while others have insisted there be a paper record of votes. Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Columbia) is citing the mix-up in her push for a verifiable paper trail for all touch-screen voting machines.

Calling the new machines a "security risk," Bobo said she would like to see Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) call a special session of the General Assembly before the November election to address the issue.

"If we don't get it done by November, I think we need to be darn sure the elections judges are properly trained," Bobo said.

Soccer's On, Rain or Shine

Despite bad weather delays, five new soccer fields at Covenant Park will be ready for a 200-team Memorial Day weekend tournament, insists David Procida, president of the Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County.

Since construction began last spring on the soccer complex off Route 108, the amount of rain has been "ridiculous," Procida says. Still, crews have persevered, and Procida says five out of eight fields at the $5 million complex will be finished in time for this weekend's Columbia Invitational tournament. The annual event draws scores of youth soccer teams -- and college recruiters -- from all over the country.

"Two of the grass fields and three of the synthetic fields will be ready for the tournament," Procida said. The remaining fields will be sodded for fall use, he said.

Although the 28th annual tournament is a big deal nationally, the ultimate purpose of the complex is closer to home, Procida said.

"Our main priority is to have all the fields ready for kids in September."

Too Bright a Welcome?

The welcome signs along the main thoroughfares entering Columbia's Town Center neighborhoods began appearing about two weeks ago. And like a lot of new things in Columbia, they are generating controversy.

Lee Richardson, chairman of the Town Center Village Board, said five to seven signs were put up "to give the place identity." But Richardson said village officials are getting some complaints from people turned off by the fluorescent-orange trim paint on the signs.

The village board was scheduled to discuss the issue at their meeting last night.