When critics of electronic voting machines warn of Maryland becoming another Florida, with the potential for hundreds if not thousands of lost votes this fall, State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone shudders.
Maryland, Lamone said, has already had "its own Florida": the 1994 gubernatorial election, which was mired in recounts almost until inauguration day. The state's move toward electronic voting was meant to modernize its patchwork election machinery and prevent such episodes from recurring.
But today, Lamone finds the touch-screen system she has championed under attack as an Anne Arundel County judge begins a three-day hearing to determine, among other things, whether elections officials should be forced to provide a paper trail that can verify the results.
Plaintiffs, led by Linda Schade, a Takoma Park activist who helped found a group called TrueVoteMD.org, promise to produce testimony from computer experts and election officials about security vulnerabilities and other shortcomings in machines the state has paid more than $55 million to purchase.
"I think Linda Lamone's credibility continues to sink in Maryland," said Schade, whose group has called for the administrator to resign. "It's like she's selling these machines instead of looking at the facts, and I think that's a real problem. . . . She has not demonstrated a commitment to making sure every vote counts in Maryland, and that's a pretty big thing."
In an interview, Lamone dismissed such criticism and expressed confidence in the state's ability to conduct its November elections.
"If they understood the extent we have gone to protect the integrity of this voting system, they would be less concerned," Lamone said of her critics, some of whom have shown up at recent Board of Elections meetings wearing T-shirts with slogans such as "The computer ate my vote."
Maryland's use of touch-screen voting machines is drawing international attention. In the span of just a few days last week, Lamone fielded media calls from outlets including the New York Times, Consumer Reports and Canadian public television.
Maryland's system also garnered unwanted publicity last summer, when Johns Hopkins computer scientists released a report that concluded that hackers could easily crack the computer code. Consultants hired by the state Department of Legislative Services announced in January that they were able to gain control of the system, corrupt vote counts and delete election results. Lamone assured lawmakers that fixes would be made to correct shortcomings.
Maryland's machines, manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, will be familiar to many state voters in November. The touch-screen machines were used in four counties in 2002, including Prince George's and Montgomery, and in most jurisdictions across the state in the March presidential primaries, which drew only modest turnout.
In November, the machines are slated to be used in every jurisdiction but Baltimore, which will be allowed to continue using bulkier electronic machines it purchased in 1996. Just a few years ago, the state was employing a county-by-county patchwork of optical-scan, lever and punch-card voting machines.
Lamone contends that few significant problems have emerged during the state's rollout of the touch-screen machines. For the most part, she said, "everything went smoothly."
Some problems, she said, were misrepresented. In two precincts of Anne Arundel County, "encoders" needed to activate the machines were mistakenly sent to the wrong jurisdiction during the spring election, Lamone acknowledged. That forced voters arriving early to use paper ballots.
But the error, Lamone said, was human -- not the fault of suspect machines.
"We made some mistakes," she said. "That happens. We're people. . . . But the voting equipment worked exactly as it was supposed to."
Schade's group contends the problems have been far more widespread -- and promises to put local election officials on the stand who will testify about breakdowns in machines.
"Once the facts are known, the court will understand why the public does not want to use these machines in November," Schade said.
Among the remedies her group is seeking is the production of a paper receipt that could enhance voters' confidence by listing the candidates for whom they voted. The voters would place the receipts in boxes so audits could determine the accuracy of the electronic machines' results.
The General Assembly considered but ultimately rejected legislation that would have required a paper trail for the Diebold machines.
Lamone carries in her purse a ready-made prop to rebut critics on this count: a 10-foot, adding-machine-style tape produced by an electronic voting machine.
"There is no easy way to do this," Lamone said.