WASHINGTON – Installing new voting machines by the September elections may not solve the problems facing Maryland because no company, analysts and regulators say, is completely free of security problems or computer glitches.
Critics have demanded that Maryland’s voting machines produce a record of each vote, and the Maryland House of Delegates has responded, unanimously mandating such machines in the upcoming elections. Discussion has stalled in the Senate.
Maryland uses touch-screen machines made by Diebold Election Systems, but they do not produce auditable paper voting records. And the same critics demanding paper ballots decry Diebold as vulnerable to security attacks and mechanical difficulties.
Alternatives being discussed include retrofitting the current Diebold machines to produce paper records; leasing a different type of machine from Election Systems and Software or another company; using mail-in ballots used in absentee voting; or leaving the system as is.
Lawmakers talking with ES&S considered a one-year $12 million lease of optical scanners and AutoMARK machines for the disabled, but ES&S might not be any better than Diebold.
Optical-scan machines are still considered susceptible to vote tampering, said Sean Greene, Research Director for Electionline.org, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that studies voting. It is unfair, he said, to pinpoint Diebold as the only company with a troubled history.
“Maryland was one of the first to jump on the Diebold bandwagon and now (Diebold) has sort of become the poster child for what the problems in electronic voting are,” he said. “There are some issues with all the machines . . . There have been problems with optical scanners.”
Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, a vocal backer of replacing Diebold’s machines with some that provide paper trails, maintains that optical scanners are necessary.
“For the electronic voting machines, I don’t think any company in any business is perfect, but the electronic machines of Diebold are, basically, inherently insecure,” she said.
An entirely secure electronic voting machine has yet to emerge, said Avi Rubin, a computer-science professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the upcoming, “Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting.”
“I have it out for touch screens; I don’t have it out for Diebold,” said Rubin, who has worked as an election judge and testified before the General Assembly.
Pressure to dump Diebold has come from across the country, with the most recent example a New York Times editorial last week commending the Maryland House bill. In California earlier this month, Voter Action, an advocacy group, sued the state in an attempt to keep Diebold out of the general elections. And last year in Florida, an elections official allowed a Swedish computer science engineer to successfully alter results from a Diebold machine. Maryland and Florida use the same memory cards, which are not produced by Diebold.
But the track record of ES&S has its own share of blotches. It was recently criticized after a shipment of machines to North Carolina and Ohio last month had problems with memory cards produced by another company, Vikant. Vikant declined comment, but the cards have since been replaced.
Campbell County, Wyo. — an ES&S client for 14 years that used punch-cards until this year — took delivery on 35 ES&S voting machines only to find 22 of them had malfunctioning keypads, according to an elections clerk.
“As always, our priority remains delivering secure, accurate and reliable elections for the voters in the jurisdictions we serve, and we will work with local election officials to continue that record of quality through the upcoming election season,” Ken Fields, an ES&S spokesman said.
ES&S’s problems, meanwhile, extend beyond just technology glitches. In Pennsylvania, election officials claim the company pulled out of an agreement to provide voting machines before compromising.
Leonard Piazza III, a county elections director, said he never considered Diebold because of the Florida concerns and rumors the company might be leaving the election business.
“That’s not to say the Diebold Systems is a bad system,” he said. “Personally I found their system to be a substantial system. I was fairly impressed by their touch-screen system.”
State Board of Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone, who continues to defend Diebold, said that the companies states decide to deal with are equally important to the technology involved.
“It’s people, processes, and equipment,” she said. “You can’t view any one of those pieces in isolation.”
Sequoia, another election equipment maker, has also faced problems, with the most recent coming two weeks ago during Chicago’s elections. Vote-counting took longer than planned, and officials have since questioned whether the company should be paid.
Meanwhile, the Maryland Board of Elections has asked for at least two estimates from other companies to fulfill the General Assembly’s call for paper-record-producing machines.
The board asked ES&S for an estimate on 2,000 optical scanners and 4,000 AutoMARK machines — nearly double the amount the company suggested. The board also checked on a trade with Diebold to replace its current TS machines for new TS-X machines, a plan which would produce paper records, but cost another $43 million above the estimated $90 million the state’s spent on Diebold machines.
A similar trade recently took place in California for the TS-X, which had been demonstrated for the General Assembly in Annapolis. The estimates were requested on behalf of senators seeking information on the issue, and not because the Board was seeking a new vendor, Lamone said.
Voting machine controversy has continued unabated since Congress passed the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which requires updated voting systems and machines be accessible to the disabled. States have worked to meet the requirements to avoid losing federal funds.
“Right now that whole operation (law) hasn’t come close to operating and being effective,” said Ronald Walters, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.