ANNAPOLIS – Ignoring warnings that what it proposes is “a near impossibility,” the House of Delegates voted unanimously Thursday to abandon the state’s current touch-screen voting machines in favor of ones that produce a verifiable paper trail in time for the fall elections.
“We must protect our election process,” House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R – Calvert and St. Mary’s, said, “The machines we have right now are very susceptible. This is one of the most important bills we’ll pass this session.”
If it makes it through the Senate and is signed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., the legislation would require that the state either purchase $55 million in new machines that produce paper records, or, if that is unfeasible by the 2006 elections, to lease optical scan systems similar to those used for standardized scholastic testing at a cost of $12.5 million dollars.
The State Board of Elections, according to an analysis of the bill by legislative staff, “advises that it is a near impossibility,” that the state will be able to implement either voting system by the fall elections, a warning both the House and Ehrlich seem to be ignoring.
State elections officials have expressed confidence in the Diebold machines that Maryland now uses, even though the firm’s machines have come under increasing attack nationwide by critics who contend they can be manipulated.
The Senate has not yet voted on its version of the legislation, which is still in committee. Various senators have different predictions as to what will happen if the bill gets to the floor.
“I think there’s wide support in the Senate,” Sen. John A. Giannetti, Jr., D – Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, said. “This may be the perfect year for this to happen because we’re facing a budget surplus.”
As of Thursday evening, Senate President Mike Thomas V. Miller, D – Prince George’s and Calvert, had not yet taken a stance based on the House action, said Lisa McMurray, a spokeswoman for Miller.
“We need to wait and see what comes out” of committee, she said. Miller’s position in the past has been that the Diebold machines currently in use are secure.
Ehrlich supports the move to have a paper trail system in place by the fall 2006 elections, and he has called on the Senate to follow the House’s lead.
“The governor calls on Senate President Mike Miller and the state Senate to pass the measure as well,” a spokesman for Ehrlich, Henry P. Fawell, said after the House vote.
“He called on the State Board of Elections two weeks ago to support this measure,” Fawell said. “In the governor’s view the State Board of Elections’ inability to adequately safeguard the election system means we have to move in this direction.”
Ehrlich vetoed a bill last year to examine the issue of a paper trail, Democrats are quick to note, but Ehrlich has said he now supports such records because he no longer has faith in the state’s existing elections system.
Grassroots organizations such as TrueVoteMD were among the earliest and most ardent supporters of the push for a paper trail in elections. “Diebold should be booted from our state,” Linda Shade, executive director and one of five TrueVoteMD co-founders, said in a statement. “What is most disturbing to me is the fact that our elections agency prefers hiding these problems rather than to solve them. I find the allegiance to Diebold baffling and dangerous.”