THANKS TO Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s curious and continuing blind faith in certifiably untrustworthy voting machines, voters in the state will never know whether their election choices were recorded correctly last year or what to believe when the "results" of key state elections are rolled out next year. Computer experts across the country -- and most notably in the governor's back yard, at Johns Hopkins University -- have warned repeatedly that although the touch-screen machines in use in Maryland can, at their best, be as accurate as they are efficient, no one can know for sure, because they are not equipped to produce paper trails showing each vote cast.
At least now important help is on the way: With a grant announced last week from the National Science Foundation, Hopkins is establishing a center to study the reliability of electronic voting machines. The goal is to design the most foolproof, hacker-resistant and accurate voting system possible. Hopkins will share the grant with experts from Stanford University; the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Iowa; Rice University; and SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research organization in California. Heading the center will be Hopkins expert Avi Rubin, who has been a critic of the rush to electronic voting, especially Maryland's embrace of machines manufactured by Diebold Elections Systems of Texas.
Computerized voting systems are the way to go in Maryland and elsewhere. Last year, 32 states used some type of computerized machinery, according to the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group in San Francisco. But critics stress that the systems at this point are vulnerable to tampering and should provide a paper trail to prove that votes were counted properly. That technology exists; Verified Voting says 25 states have laws or rules mandating a paper trail.
Maryland should join the states that insist on this fundamental protection. The state legislature did vote this year for an official review of electronic systems, but Mr. Ehrlich would not buy even this weak move; he vetoed the bill. The dawdling has gone on far too long. It may be too late to put paper-trail equipment in place for 2006, but the new center does plan to issue information and recommendations in time for the 2008 elections. In Maryland, as everywhere, the integrity of the voting process demands the best possible safeguards.