The future of voting in Maryland is stored in warehouses across the state, including one in Glen Burnie, formerly Anne Arundel County's animal shelter, where new touch-screen machines inside small hardtop suitcases are stacked in bays where dogs and cats used to live.
Even before the machines have been turned on, though, they are at the center of a growing chorus of criticism about whether the results they will provide in the March presidential primary, and beyond, can be trusted.
While election officials say they are happy with the new system, critics worry that hackers might be able to rig the machines to record votes differently from how they were cast, and that there is no mechanism to detect that.
"The voter will touch the screen and think everything is fine but will have no way of knowing," said Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who has criticized the system.
But since Maryland has already spent $55 million for the automated teller-like machines, a vocal group of computer scientists are pushing for a fix they consider fairly simple: adding what they call a voter-verified paper trail, printing out each ballot cast for the voter to review before leaving the polling place on Election Day. Those ballots could be counted by hand should a recount be required.
Maryland purchased more than 11,000 AccuVote-TS machines in July from Diebold Election Systems despite swirling questions on whether U.S. elections can safely be conducted via computer.
Despite the questions, manufacturers such as Diebold, based in North Canton, Ohio, haven't yet made the paper trail feature available. But California recently announced it will require an auditable paper trail on its machines by 2006. New York and several other states are considering the same. And Holt introduced a bill in Congress in May that would require every state to require a paper trail in 2004 - all of which would force vendors to perfect a technique for producing these records.
Maryland election officials say they have no intention of requiring the parallel paper trail - and say they aren't convinced it is necessary.
"We're not going to stop the presses or anything like that," said Gilles W. Burger, a systems engineer who is chairman of the state's Board of Elections. "I feel very comfortable and confident with the accuracy of these machines. We're listening to what people are saying out there, but there isn't just one viewpoint out there."
Senators want study
Meanwhile, a Maryland Senate committee has requested a review of the security of the Diebold system and an analysis of the system's lack of printed receipts. Several legislators have said they would support upgrading the new machines, even if at extra cost.
"Actually having a paper trail gives you the confidence that actual votes cast will be counted," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "I just think for public confidence we're going to have to find the funds, the means, to have a recount."
Maryland is among the first states to roll out electronic voting machines statewide, its response to the error-ridden 2000 presidential election voting that played out in Florida with punch cards, butterfly ballots and hanging chads.
During the 2002 gubernatorial election, four counties were the first to use the machines in Maryland. Most voters in a small survey done by a pair of University of Maryland researchers said they found the machines easy to use and trusted the results. But the report came with a caveat: "Individuals who use computers frequently reported having less trust in the new voting systems than did others."
Many of the most outspoken critics know computers best, including Aviel D. Rubin of the Johns Hopkins University, who helped kick off the national discussion with a report in July that questioned whether the Diebold software could open elections to manipulation.
Rebecca T. Mercuri, a research fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who has studied electronic voting machines for a decade, cites recent elections in Florida and Virginia where questions were asked about irregularities in voting - but there was no way to go back and answer them. In Fairfax County, Va., she said, a glitch in machines seemed to erase votes for one of the candidates for school board once every 100 votes.
"If there had been a paper ballot that each person saw, you would at least have had a paper record of the election and you wouldn't have a gigantic question mark at the end of the day," she said. "I don't understand why Maryland is just rushing ahead with this. It's OK to go ahead with it - just require paper ballots."
Exactly how the paper record would work is still up in the air. It could be a receipt-type piece of paper, printed with the ballot cast, that voters would then put into a locked box of some sort. Another, more popular concept would have the paper appear behind a glass shield where the voter could see it, approve it and then watch it into a secure receptacle.
But adding paper records raises many questions, too. It could void some of the advantages of electronic voting, such as the ability to easily accommodate non-English speakers and to allow blind people to use the equipment through the use of headphones and a keypad. It leads to extra security questions about storage and counting of the pieces of paper. It would erase one of the features elections officials like best - the elimination of paper from the process.
"There are a lot of questions that come into play," said David K. Bear, a Diebold spokesman.
Diebold hasn't come up with a voter-verified system, Bear said, but that's because officials have yet to ask for one. If Maryland determined what it wanted, Diebold would be happy to comply, he said.
The company and the state are planning an aggressive marketing campaign - television and radio ads, billboards and mock elections - to teach voters how to use the machines and instill confidence that they will work as designed. Up to now, said Christopher Hood, another Diebold spokesman, the only thing most voters have heard about his company's machines has been the criticisms printed in the newspaper.
Elections officials, those who seemingly know elections best, are among the biggest proponents of touch-screen voting.
"I haven't had anyone come to me and say, 'We need a paper ballot,'" said Catherine "Kitty" Davis, administrator of elections in Allegany County. "To me, it's just another incidence for error, and my focus is to eliminate those."
Allegany, along with Montgomery, Prince George's and Dorchester counties, has used the machines. Davis even got to oversee a recount, when House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. lost in a very close race.
In doing the recount, the vote totals came out the same as during the first count.
In neighboring Washington County, which used optical scan machines in the Taylor race, a few extra votes were found for Taylor's opponent, said that county's election director, Dorothy Kaetzel.
Davis said she and her staff send the machines through a rigorous series of tests to assure that whomever the voter intends to choose receives the vote cast.
"The machine does its thing - just as we've trusted the others [voting systems] to do," she said. "There is no perfect science out there. We came from [lever machines], and this is so much better."