ANNAPOLIS – Five municipal elections Nov. 4 will provide the first test of security improvements to Maryland’s new touch-screen voting machines, which critics have called vulnerable to tampering.
City, county and state administrators say they’re confident in the security upgrades and are preparing for elections in Chestertown, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Salisbury and Takoma Park.
“We want these elections to be successful (and) make the system look good,” said David Heller, a project manager for the state elections board.
Security concerns have dogged the machines since the July release of a Johns Hopkins University study that said the system’s software was open to attacks from computer hackers and polling place janitors. A subsequent state-ordered review called the voting system “at high risk of compromise” and recommended technological and administrative changes.
City election plans had been on hold pending that study’s Sept. 23 release. The state gave the go-ahead to use the machines after fixes by manufacturer Diebold Election Systems.
State legislators called for yet another investigation Oct. 20 to re-examine the two previous reports.
“I don’t have any concern,” said Brenda Colegrove, Salisbury city clerk, adding she has “all the faith in the world” in county election officials and the new security measures.
Fred Felton, Gaithersburg assistant city manager, said he found it “very reassuring” that the more-secure software was installed. The city is also raising election judges’ awareness of potential security threats.
Takoma Park, Rockville and Gaithersburg voters are already familiar with the machines, since Montgomery and three other counties used them in Maryland’s 2002 gubernatorial election. But they’re brand new to Chestertown and Salisbury’s elections in Kent and Wicomico counties, respectively.
“It’ll be a good way for the voters to get their feet wet in preparation for the primary,” said Florence Sutton, Kent County election director.
Security won’t be a concern in Chestertown, said Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, since only two City Council seats are on the ballot and both incumbents are unopposed.
“What could be better than a dress rehearsal like this?” Ingersoll said.
Cities said they’ve had few calls from constituents questioning the system’s security.
“I have not personally gotten any calls about it,” said Claire Funkhouser, Rockville clerk. “It may not be the big concern to voters that some people would make us think it is.”
Worried voters have called Gaithersburg, Felton said, but usually a five-minute description of security measures puts them at ease.
Aberdeen and Bel Air, both in Harford County, will use the county’s old optical scan machines, but not out of security concerns, said Rita Dather, county election director. State re-approval of them came too late to train election judges, she said.
Gaithersburg, Rockville and Takoma Park didn’t have any other option, since Montgomery County has already sold its old punch-card machines.
“If the old equipment was still available, I think our Board of Supervisors of Elections would have considered using it,” Felton said, because of public perception based on touch-screen machines’ bad press.
But Felton stressed he and the board “strongly believe in the system.”