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Bugs emerge in voting-machine trial

By Pete Pichaske
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Barbara Simpson's been a voter for 41 years, so you might think that participating in a mock election wouldn't much interest her.

But when she got the chance to try one of the new touch-screen voting machines Howard County intends to use in next year's elections, Simpson took it.

Her verdict: "I like it. Everything's in front of you and you can see it, and you can make changes easier. I think it's great."

Simpson, who works in the State's Attorney's Office, was one of 258 county residents who tested the new electronic voting machines during mock elections Nov. 20 at five sites.

They cast votes for five offices: president, U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, school board and delegates to the two major party conventions.

(Ben Franklin won the Democratic primary for president; Abe Lincoln won the Republican primary.)

Four Maryland counties used the machines in elections last year, but every jurisdiction in Maryland, except Baltimore City, will use them in next year's primary and general elections.

Howard was the first of the counties that have yet to use the machines to test them in a mock election. Elections administrator Bob Antonetti said his office will not hold any more mock elections, but will demonstrate the machines in supermarkets, nursing homes, senior centers and elsewhere in the coming months.

Last week's trial was aimed both at teaching voters how to use the machines and testing the system to make sure it works.

Privacy called a concern

Although voters, like Simpson, raved about how simple the machines are to use, they and elections officials gave other aspects of the system mixed reviews.

Some voters complained of a lack of privacy _ the machines are set close together and voters are not screened by curtains _ while others wondered about the security of an electronic system.

"I don't like the fact about how there's no (paper) back-up" for counting votes, said Mike Taylor of Columbia, who voted at the Clarksville Fire Department. "Any system can be manipulated."

Elections officials, meanwhile, noted that the carts used to haul the machines did not adequately protect the machines from damage.

More importantly, the votes could not be sent electronically from the five polling places to the elections office in Ellicott City, Antonetti said. He blamed the problem on a faulty computer server.

In addition, at one polling site, voters were allowed to four candidates for one office when they should have been limited to two.

Representatives from Diebold Election System, the Canton, Ohio-based company supplying the voting machines to Maryland, fixed the problem in the morning and blamed it on a programming error.

Antonetti said he was generally pleased with the system, despite the glitches. He expected to have the problems ironed out by primary election day, March 2.

"Some things worked well and some things we have to tweak," he said. "This is why we have tests. I'm sure they didn't send the first rocket they made to the moon."

Diebold's Sue Page, who met with Antonetti and other elections officials to assess the trial Nov. 21, agreed.

"The best way to learn something is to find something that didn't work," she said.

Critics seek a paper trail

Although used successfully in four Maryland counties last year, the touch-screen voting machines have been criticized, most often because they do not produce hard-copy ballots, as do traditional voting systems.

A Montgomery County delegate has proposed legislation that would require that the machines produce a paper trail that can be checked against the electronic vote tallies.

Del. Sharon Montgomery's bill would require that a printed copy of each voter's choices be created, verified by the voter and stored in a locked box.

The paper ballots would be checked against the electronic tallies in a random sampling of 2 percent of the polling places in each district, to make sure the tallies agree.

"Software can be manipulated and this is to make sure that doesn't happen," said Montgomery's legislative aide, David Williams. "It would prevent hacking."

The bill is modeled after a proposal in Congress and would take effect in time for the November general election, although too late for the March primary, Williams said.

Montgomery is signing up co-sponsors for the bill, which she will introduce during next year's General Assembly session. While no lawmakers from Howard have signed on as sponsors, Del. Liz Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, expressed interest in the bill last week, Williams said.

"I don't know the technicalities of the system well enough to have an opinion on it, but people are concerned and I can understand their concerns," said Bobo, who tried the new machines at the Clarksville Fire Department last week.

"The system couldn't be easier to use," she added. "But it does raise some concerns."

Diebold officials say the concerns are unwarranted.

Mark Radke, Diebold's director of voting industry, said the system creates a paper trail of sorts because it immediately stores each vote and, when the polls close, prints a tally for each machine.

The system Maryland is using will not create paper receipts for each voter, as Montgomery is proposing, but could do so if required, Radke said.

"It's a matter of expense," he said, adding that such receipts are not now required by election law.

Radke said the system will not be vulnerable to hackers because neither the voting stations nor the election control centers will be connected to the Internet.

"What people find with this system is it makes it very clear exactly who you're voting for, it eliminates overvoting and it drastically reduces under-voting," he said.

Diebold's Page said Allegany County, which used the touch-screen machines last year, was able to accurately recount votes using the print-outs in a hotly contested delegate contest that ended in the ouster of former House of Delegates Speaker Casper Taylor.

Antonetti said he was satisfied the system will leave enough of a paper trail to handle any questions that might arise.

"We'll be able to print out ballots and count them manually if we need to," Antonetti said. "That's something we want to be sure we can do."

Besides the Clarksville Fire Department, the mock election was held at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department, the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Department and the Savage Volunteer Fire Department.

E-mail Pete Pichaske at ppichaske@patuxent.com.

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