MARYLAND VOTERS had better hope that all goes well for them at the polls come November -- and we're not talking about who wins. Each month, more studies raise serious questions about the risks in using paperless touch-screen voting machines, yet the state administration doesn't seem all that concerned. The operative word is paperless: When the touch-screen machines are working well, they are as good as, or better than, the old familiar systems that have left chads and results hanging in the balance. But when malfunctions occur, useful recounts are not possible without a paper record.
If for some reason -- and it could be tampering -- certain votes don't get counted, who will ever know? The machine's totals might be retabulated, but the results might not differ from the first totals. So why not require voter-verified paper records? The technology exists, and Congress, as well as at least 20 states, is debating laws making paper trails a requirement. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has ordered that after July 1, 2005, no county may purchase a touch-screen system that does not have such capacity. By July 2006 all touch-screen systems must be equipped, no matter when they were purchased.
Under these new standards the paper record would be displayed for the voter but could not be touched by the voter. Each person could reject or void up to two printed ballots. Included is a requirement that people with disabilities be able to verify their votes without needing assistance. Such backup systems add another important element: voter confidence in the process. Touch-screen machines with paper records can be the best of all ways to tally votes. But until such functions are required, voters will have reason to be wary. At its biennial convention here this week, the League of Women Voters rescinded its support of paperless machines, voting overwhelmingly for a resolution supporting voting systems that are "secure, accurate, recountable and accessible."
How much longer will Maryland look the other way?