Correction: Earlier versions of this article gave the wrong title and party affiliation for P.J. Hogan, a Democrat who is vice-chairman of the State Board of Elections. The article has been corrected.
Voters in Maryland will be casting their votes with black pens and paper ballots in the coming presidential primaries, nearly a decade after lawmakers decided to get rid of touch-screen machines that leave no paper trail.
The search for new equipment was mired in delays and setbacks before the state finally approved a $28 million contract last December. And even with the new ballots and scanners in hand, Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has raised questions in recent weeks about whether the state is headed for disaster in its rush to get them up and running.
Rockville and College Park deployed the new machines without trouble in their fall municipal elections, but the April 26 primaries will be the first statewide test of the new system. Voters will be casting ballots in the presidential primary and in heated races to nominate candidates to succeed Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) in the U.S. Senate and to fill two open congressional seats.
Under the new system, voters will fill in their choices on a paper ballot and run it through a scanner that tallies the votes. The paper goes into a box and is available for recounts, the crucial feature missing from touch-screen machines.
Maryland’s Department of Information Technology last month urged delaying the implementation of the new voting machines because of dozens of hardware and software issues that were being revealed in testing. Elections administrator Linda Lamone, who operates independently of the governor’s office, insisted that the project move forward and said any problems could be resolved.
In the past month, the number of unresolved problems with the new voting machines has shrunk from 87 to 24, none of them high risk, according to internal project-tracking reports provided to The Washington Post. In addition to the new machines, election officials are rolling out same-day voting registration and changing the process for early voting.
But the capability of state agencies to deliver on major technology projects remains a sensitive issue in Maryland, which is still reeling from the botched launch of its health-insurance website. Republicans have blasted the administration of former governor Martin O’Malley (D) for not buying the new machines sooner.
“My concern is that the entire election collapses,” Hogan said at the Dec. 2 meeting of the Board of Public Works. “We should be talking about the integrity of the vote in Maryland.”
Such criticism brings a return volley from state Democrats, who say Hogan’s office should intervene with the Board of Elections if he has such grave concerns.
“He’s essentially criticizing the new machines but also saying the old machines are not to his liking,” said Patrick Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. “This isn’t ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ where he gets to look for a third set of porridge.”
Following the disastrous 2000 Florida election recount, Maryland joined a number of states in switching to touch-screen machines. But policymakers quickly questioned whether the new technology was in fact an upgrade.
A computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University released an analysis suggesting the machines could be hacked. The manufacturer had to replace thousands of electronic components in the machines to stop the screens from freezing up.
During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, O’Malley and Republican incumbent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. urged supporters to cast absentee ballots, fearing the touch-screen machines weren’t reliable.
“As soon as you get a machine in the picture recording things invisibly in its memory, you run the risk that any kind of error or tampering would mess with the election results, and there would be no way to know,” said Rebecca Wilson, co-director of Save Our Votes, one of several groups that formed in opposition to the touch-screen system.
The legislature passed a bill in 2007 mandating that elections leave a verifiable paper trail but didn’t provide the money for new voting machines. An attempt to buy new machines was derailed in 2010 after costs ballooned, and O’Malley’s administration didn’t finalize a new contract until 2014.
“They kept pulling the strings every year and saying, ‘No, we’ll do it next year, no, next year, no, next year.’ It took way too long,” former delegate Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) said.
During an October mock election to test the new system, 3,000 votes weren’t counted in Howard County — a major red flag to the Department of Information Technology, which also said the mock election wasn’t a complete test.
State elections officials suspect the scanner didn’t count the votes because a security measure blocked it from using a memory card that was plugged into another computer. Had this happened on Election Day, officials say, the paper ballots could have been re-scanned on another machine in a matter of hours.
“They were never lost. They were always there,” said Guy Mickley, Howard’s election director.
The IT department also flagged “untimely software deliveries” by the voting-system vendor, Election Systems & Software, for the tablets that poll workers will be using to look up voters. Voters were turned away in 2006 because of problems with those books.
Nikki Charlson, Maryland’s deputy election administrator, said the state needs additional software to process address changes for early voters, and expects to receive it this month.
Charlson said Election Systems & Software has provided an additional technician to troubleshoot problems and assigned one of its executives to focus exclusively on Maryland. It has also started providing weekly status reports.
“The system is performing as expected,” Charlson said. “We don’t believe that there’s any issue with the equipment that we have seen that would call into question its ability to run in the primary.”
Kathy Rogers, a senior vice president of Election Systems & Software, said the company is on track to successfully implement the new system. She declined to answer specific questions.
While the old machines are warehoused and available, election administrators say the paper ballots would be the best backup if the scanners don’t tabulate the votes properly. Another round of testing on the new units is planned before April.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said she would have liked more transparency from the state and the vendor about problems that surfaced during the rollout of the new machines. “The process suffers from a lot of the same flaws that, frankly, our health exchange suffered from,” Bevan-Dangel said.
But P.J. Hogan, vice-chairman of the State Board of Elections, says he’s comfortable with the process. “The vendor has an incredible amount at stake here. They need a successful rollout,” said Hogan, a Democrat who is not related to the governor. “There’s not cause for concern, just eternal vigilance to make sure the system is up and ready to go.”