WASHINGTON – Recent, frequent changes in voting methods are throwing the election process into disarray, Prince George’s County’s top elections official told a House committee Wednesday.
Election offices need more time, more funding and fewer changes in the voting system to be effective, Prince George’s County Election Administrator Alisha Alexander told the Committee on House Administration, which held the hearing to discuss how the 2008 primary cycle had fared to date.
“It is sad that something as important as elections is grossly underfunded and understaffed,” Alexander said. “But yet, we, as elections officials, are expected to conduct flawless elections.”
The numerous changes in voting systems nationwide since the 2000 presidential election have gummed up the process, and widely used electronic voting systems are more complicated to set up than their paper predecessors, she said.
“Legislators cannot continue to add layers of paperwork and technology and expect the volunteers who receive four hours of training to understand it all,” Alexander said. “Election officials are not opposed to implementing technology — however, we are opposed to implementing it too quickly.”
The initial switches to electronic machines were made after the presidential election debacle in 2000, when the vote tally between George W. Bush and Al Gore was so close that multiple ballot recounts created an intense debate over the mechanics of paper ballots that was eventually resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Every election since 2000, the local boards of election in Maryland have either been required to add new technology or new processes,” Alexander said. “We, as elections officials, have seen more changes in the past eight years than we had in the previous 30.”
The Maryland State Board of Elections began switching from traditional paper ballots to Diebold touch-screen voting machines in the 2002 election cycle.
Amid cries from activists that the paperless Diebold machines were not secure and didn’t provide an independently auditable paper trail, the state decided earlier this year to switch again to an optical scan system by 2010.
With the new system, voters will fill out paper ballots, which they then feed into a machine that electronically records their votes. The optical-scan machines will cost about $20 million, and the state will still be paying for the $65 million touch-screen machines until 2014.
The committee’s chairman, Robert Brady, D-Pa., who held the hearing to analyze 2008’s primary voting thus far, focused much of the hearing on how to better serve voters. He was grateful, he said, to have input from the panelists.
“I hope this will send a message to the states to be prepared,” he said.
Alexander said she and her colleagues are doing as much as they can.
“We in Prince George’s County, Maryland, realized after the 2006 election that we have to do more to educate voters,” she said. “We want voters to understand the elections process, so that when they go to the polls, they feel confident.”
A change to electronic databases of voter information six months before the 2006 primary election caused “statewide problems,” she said. Many of the machines did not have cards needed to function by the morning of the election.
Her department holds demonstrations of voting technology before every election, to make sure voters are comfortable with the machines and their accuracy, but few people show up, she said.
Alexander urged the media, such as nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, who testified earlier in the day, to put a positive spin on voting.
“When voters hear words like trickery and ‘tricknology’ on the airwaves from various media venues, they gradually become cynical,” she said. “I’m making a personal plea to all media venues to use their power in disseminating information to assist election officials in educating the voters.”
Earlier in the hearing, Joyner discussed his efforts to do just that. He told the committee about the voter information hotline he’s heavily involved with, 866-MY-VOTE-1.
“We’ve received, in total, more than 45,000 phone calls to 866-MY-VOTE-1,” said Joyner, who can be heard on WWIN 95.9-FM in Baltimore, WSBY 98.9-FM in Salisbury and WMMJ 102.3-FM in the Washington suburbs.
However, more than 4,000 of those were complaints about polling place problems, he said.
“My listeners are counting on me to do something about these irregularities, and I’m counting on you,” Joyner said. “Many of them start believing that these problems are designed to keep them from voting … they call me and I hear the frustration and the anger.”
The committee played audio from several hotline calls, including one from a voter at the Silver Spring Unitarian-Universalist Church who was not allowed to cast a ballot because she wasn’t listed as a registered party member. Independents are not allowed to vote in Maryland’s party primaries.
The Committee on House Administration helped pass the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which provided federal funding for states to convert to an electronic voting system. The committee provides federal oversight for the voting process.