The Maryland State Board of Elections on Thursday unanimously ordered early voting sites in the April primary to use paper ballots instead of touch-screen machines, which officials recently found makes it confusing for voters to navigate long lists of candidates.
The overhaul addresses a problem that might have siphoned votes away from candidates whose last names are farther down in the alphabet, such as presidential hopeful Donald Trump (R) and Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen (D). Several candidates’ campaigns, which election officials declined to name, threatened possible legal action.
“The fairest, most viable and reasonable solution is paper ballots,” said Patrick J. Hogan (D), the vice chairman of the State Board of Elections. “We want to maintain the integrity and fairness of the election, and that’s really the only option.”
The shift, which the five-member board approved at an emergency meeting, means that early voting sites will use the same paper-and-pen ballots, fed through a scanner, that will debut statewide in the April 26 primary. But unlike local precincts on Election Day, early voting sites must prepare as many as 50 different ballots to accommodate voters from various jurisdictions casting ballots in other races.
Election officials decided to use touch-screen machines that are already available for voters with disabilities to prevent a deluge of different paper ballots at Maryland’s 66 early voting sites. But they didn’t anticipate the system’s failure to properly navigate voters through more than seven candidates.
That leaves candidates and lawmakers puzzling over the same question: Why is it so hard to put a bunch of names on a screen?
Kathy Rogers, an executive with Executive Systems and Software, the voting-machine vendor, said future versions of the equipment can display more candidates on a screen but the technology provided to Maryland is not flawed.
“You can absolutely move back to see the candidates,” said Rogers, adding that Maryland is apparently worried that voters would hit the wrong button rather than having no way to navigate through the candidate lists.
State officials have known since November that touch screen-machines couldn’t display all candidates’ names. They changed machine settings to force voters to view all candidates after a pilot election in Rockville revealed the problem.
But voters who wanted to browse the second page of candidates couldn’t return to the first page.
The issue was caught last month when Maryland’s elections chief tried the system after a complaint from Anne Arundel judicial candidate Cathy Vitale.
“We didn’t realize how unintuitive the navigation tools were,” Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone told state senators at a hearing earlier Thursday. “I sat down with the voting unit and tried to see my way through it . . . and I got lost.”
Lamone said that local jurisdictions should be able to print enough ballots and train election judges in time, but there will be thousands of dollars in additional costs.
State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) said the problems in Rockville should have prompted state officials to change the voting machines’ programming to display all candidates while they had time to get federal clearance for the machines.
“It’s perplexing to me why they waited three months to seek to address it,” Kagan said.
Lamone didn’t warn state lawmakers during a Friday briefing where a lawmaker found similar troubles navigating candidate lists.
Lamone’s deputy, Nikki Charlson, said it would have been inappropriate to broadcast the problems with the machine while officials were trying to find a solution.
At the board hearing, Hogan said the state should try to recover funds from the voting-machine vendor. But he and Lamone did not recall the limit on candidates emerging as an issue when securing the $28 million contract for a new voting system.
“Do I wish I could go back? Sure, but you have to deal with things as they come at you,” said Hogan, who is not related to Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore), a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said she is used to the challenges of being among the last on a ballot but was surprised that Maryland hadn’t addressed the issue of candidates appearing on multiple pages earlier.
“You would think somebody would have thought of it,” said Szeliga, who will appear as the 12th candidate in a 14-person Republican field to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara a. Mikulski (D-Md.).
Carl Stokes, a Baltimore City Council member and one of 13 Democrats running for mayor, said the early-voting problem adds to a pile of concerns about shifting to a new voting system.
“There’s just too much confusion to the voters,” Stokes said. “I wish they’d scrap the whole thing, frankly.”