For the members of the League of Women Voters who gathered Thursday for a test of Montgomery County's electronic voting machines, it was like watching someone defuse a bomb. All these cables and cords and touch screens and thingamajigs wired together into foldable, collapsible, portable instruments of democracy: Would they actually work?
They couldn't look. They couldn't look away.
Instead, they feigned calm while Margaret A. Jurgensen, Montgomery's director of elections, double-checked the voting machines' totals against hand tallies after a small mock election. The women rocked back and forth in their chairs, chatted about the weather, wondered about the election and whispered.
"Oh, please, I hope they work."
"Let's pray this time goes better than that other time."
"Don't worry, Barbara. I really think it'll be fine."
And so it was.
By Thursday afternoon, all the assorted gadgets and gizmos that make up the county's 2,600 Diebold e-voting machines had been synced in the basement of the Board of Elections office. The machines -- rectangular touch screens operated by computer memory cards -- had all been tested. Retested. Re-retested.
Finally, they were ready to be unveiled.
Before Thursday's test, state and local election officials appeared confident in the much-maligned e-voting system. After the tests -- when all the tallies had checked out, when there were no human errors and no machine errors -- they were more than relieved.
Yes: They are tamper-proof. See: There's a paper trail. No: The modems aren't hooked up while people are voting, so there's no chance of anyone hacking into the system.
"So, did you have any other questions?" Jurgensen asked the dozen onlookers, including several from the League of Women Voters. Or did this demonstration take care of all their fears, the general anxiety that prompts people to call in with questions every day?
All cleared up? No worries?
"Let's hope," Jurgensen said.
Members of the League of Women Voters watched patiently as Jurgensen described a voting process with which they were already familiar.
They already knew about the different voting screens, about how to insert the computer memory card, select English (or Spanish), record votes and check them. They knew the machines have large-text options for the vision-impaired and audio components for the hard-of-hearing. They nodded politely when Sara Harris, the county's deputy elections director, explained that there are 517,000 registered voters in Montgomery and that she thinks this could go off without a hitch.
"We have plenty of sample ballots," she said. "What we really want to get out to people is: Please, use the sample ballot. Mark it. Take it with you to the polls. This system is so easy to vote on."
There have been numerous demonstrations besides this one.
"The only errors we've encountered so far have been human," one of the women whispered to Barbara Sanders, vice president of the Montgomery league.
The members of the league are the watchdogs for voters who are at work or school when demonstrations are held and cannot attend.
And so even though they already knew how the voting process worked, they asked questions.
"What happens with the absentee ballots?"
Harris began an answer. "We already have 30,000 absentee ballot requests in Montgomery, and I wouldn't be surprised if that number reaches 40,000."
As she continued talking, the league women conferred their satisfaction in approving whispers: "Looking good," they said. "We'll see on Election Day."