ANNAPOLIS – With leases of voting equipment in most of the Maryland’s jurisdictions ending within the next four years, the state is in an excellent position to go for a standardized statewide voting system, said election officials.
This comes amid the continuing controversy over unclear and questionable ballots in some jurisdictions in Florida that used a punch card voting system similar to that used in Montgomery County.
This debate has delayed Florida’s final vote total and the result of the presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
There are four major types of voting systems in Maryland: touch-screen, optical scan, punch card and lever machines.
Twenty of the 24 voting jurisdictions are considering a change in their voting system either because their equipment leases are up, their current voting systems will become illegal or they want to improve system efficiency and accuracy.
“We’re in a perfect position to perhaps implement such a system,” said Linda H. Lamone, the state administrator of elections.
While it would be up to the General Assembly to implement a statewide voting system, the members of the Board of Elections “would probably support legislation that would create a statewide system,” said Lamone.
Maryland should have a standard voting system, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s.
But it’s unlikely that the local boards of elections will give up their authority and allow the state to take over the funding and oversight of the elections.
“In terms of getting to uniform, I think we’re going to have to get a blue-ribbon committee . . . and go about selling the counties on why we need to make a change,” said Miller.
State elections officials would argue that a statewide system would be more cost efficient and make voting simpler for Marylanders who move between jurisdictions, said Lamone.
“The voters would not be faced with having to learn different voting systems,” said Lamone.
In the last few years, there has been a push for more computerized and fewer mechanical voting systems in Maryland to help make the results of the election known in a quicker, more accurate fashion, said Donna J. Duncan, Maryland Board of Elections director.
Another advantage of some of the new technologies in voting systems is that they are more adaptable to the disabled community, said Lamone.
In 1996, Baltimore replaced its mechanical lever voting machines with electronic touch-screen voting machines, at a cost of $6.5 million.
These touch-screen machines allow voters to view the whole ballot on a computer screen and choose a candidate by touching next to the candidate’s name to light up the selection.
“The computer was the way to go,” said Lolita Fales, Baltimore City Board of Elections deputy director. Such machines make sure that voters can’t choose two candidates for the same office, a detriment of the punch card ballot voting system used in Montgomery County that causes ballots to be invalidated each election.
Miller said he too thinks the voting system needs to be computerized.
“That’s where we need to be…this Florida election fiasco has, I believe, proved my point,” said Miller.
In 1999, the General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Miller that makes the mechanical lever machines illegal six months before the 2002 election.
Mechanical lever machines have been in use in Maryland since the 1950s, Duncan said. But most jurisdictions use an optical scan ballot system, where voters use a pen or pencil to mark their selection then read and counted by a computer.
Jurisdictions considering new voting systems are in a difficult position in that they can only consider those systems that are certified by the state of Maryland. Only one computerized or direct recording electronic system, the touch-screen system in Baltimore, has been certified by the state.
“Our hands are tied on the type of system that we can get,” said Robin M. Downs, Prince George’s County acting elections administrator. Prince George’s County is one of the three jurisdictions that needs to change its mechanical lever voting system by 2002.
Lamone said some of the new voting equipment will be presented to the Maryland Board of Elections for review this winter or spring.