ANNAPOLIS – Maryland officials knew computerized voting systems wouldn’t produce paper audit trails months before they began spending a total $54 million on a controversial statewide touch-screen voting system in December 2001.
“The assurance of machine correctness is very difficult to prove, as there is no paper audit trail,” stated a February 2001 report by a state committee. To solve the problem, Maryland’s voting system should “be capable of creating a paper record of all votes cast,” the report said.
But it wasn’t until another independent study — a July 2003 Johns Hopkins University report — that a firestorm of criticism of the machines erupted. The Hopkins study found major security flaws in voting machine software and suggested the paper-trail solution.
Despite the drawbacks, former Secretary of State John T. Willis’ 2001 committee report said computerized voting systems count votes better than any other systems, guiding the state’s decision to adopt a touch-screen voting system statewide.
The machines, made by Diebold Election Systems, will be used in all Maryland counties in the March primary. The state bought the first batch of machines for just a few counties in December 2001, with the second wave coming in January 2003. Baltimore City will join the statewide system in 2006.
But critics are pressuring the government to fix or scrap the machines, arguing each unit should print a hard copy of every ballot cast, letting all voters confirm the machines recorded their votes accurately and improving recounts. Otherwise, they claim, the touch-screen system’s dependence on secret software and computer memories could lead to election fraud and votes going uncounted.
But machine proponents variously suggest that the state study’s audit trail recommendation has already been met, couldn’t be met in the first place, or is being misinterpreted by voting machine critics.
“It wasn’t the intention to produce a paper ballot every time somebody touched a screen,” said Willis.
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening created the committee in Dec. 2000, following Florida’s voting machine meltdown during the presidential election.
“In the face of all the evidence now, anyone who’s not supportive of a voter-verified paper audit trail now is indeed derelict in their responsibilities to the voters of Maryland,” declared Linda Schade of the Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland.
Schade said she was “surprised” that the Willis Committee’s report from 2001 had raised similar concerns. Her group had only recently found the report on the Internet.
But the system already can create a paper audit trail, said Pamela Woodside, the state elections board’s technology director.
Rather than printing hard copies of ballots for voters to see, the computer memories are loaded into a central computer to print hard copies, which can be counted by hand. Allegany County used this recount process in 2002.
That doesn’t satisfy Schade’s group. That isn’t a “recount,” they said, but merely a “reprint” of potentially bad data.
Computer voting systems are still the best choice, Willis said. They do a better job of counting votes and making sure voters don’t invalidate their ballots by, for example, voting twice in one race. In contrast, paper ballots are more expensive over time, are harder to use in multilingual elections, don’t allow the blind to vote privately and are simply less accurate, Willis said.
“We use this kind of electronic technology in our everyday lives” at ATMs and gasoline pumps, Willis said, adding, “I have never had my submarine sandwich misprepared at Wawa” because of tampering with similar touch-screen technology.
Although Diebold will not make its current software available to the public, state election officials say they test the machines extensively before and after every election. The machines also record votes on three separate computer memory devices, allowing the machines to be audited.
Also, state election officials couldn’t find any quality voting machines that provided the kind of paper trail Schade’s group calls for, said Gilles Burger, chairman of the state elections board.
“There was actually only one vendor we had that offered that capability, and it was just an awful machine,” Burger said.
Paper trails at the polling places also cause other problems, Burger said, because they open up new potential for election fraud and offer less protection for blind voters.
But Linda H. Lamone, state elections board administrator, has said election officials could install printers on all state machines in time for the Nov. 2004 general election, but only if Gov. Robert Ehrlich or the General Assembly directs them to do so.
To that end, Delegate Karen Montgomery, D-Montgomery, plans to introduce a bill requiring voter-verifiable paper trails.