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Next election may bring high-tech voting

August 21, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County's registered voters may be using electronic touch-screen voting machines in this spring's election, but the statewide change isn't coming without concern from local elected officials.

The county is scheduled to receive 488 touch-screen machines in September, pending an independent review of the machines ordered by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Washington County's Board of Elections Supervisor Dorothy Kaetzel said by phone Monday.

A little more than 400 machines would be placed throughout the county's 45 voting precincts, and the rest would be stored and used as needed, Kaetzel said.

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The county would pay $85,000 in fiscal year 2005 to lease the machines from the state. The annual payments through 2009 would range from $77,000 to $122,000, Kaetzel said.

The amounts do not include a 50-percent match to be paid by the state.

The county currently pays $68,000 a year to the state for election equipment.

The electronic machines would replace the county's current method of voting, in which voters using paper ballots fill in the center of an arrow pointing to the names of candidates for whom they're voting.

The sheets are tabulated electronically.

With the new machines, voters will choose candidates by touching a screen. They will have a chance to double-check their votes before they submit the ballot, Kaetzel said.

Recounts can be conducted through printouts from the machine.

Kaetzel said the change was required by the state and federal governments to ensure that visually impaired voters have the opportunity to vote independently.

Some visually impaired voters require assistance to cast their ballots under the current method, she said.

Washington County has 69,242 registered voters.

The County Commissioners have called the change an "unfunded mandate," meaning the state requires local jurisdictions to switch machines but isn't paying all of the costs associated with the change.

"I'm just not totally convinced at this point it's worth the additional money," Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said Monday. "I think what we had before was reliable."

He said finding the space to store the machines - which he said must be kept in climate-controlled, secure rooms - might pose a problem for the county.

"I think it's a bad time to be replacing them, especially in Washington County in light of the debt load," Commissioner John C. Munson said. "I really don't think we need them."

Ehrlich ordered an independent review of the system on Aug. 6 to determine whether the electronic machines would compromise the security of the votes.

Ehrlich said in a written statement that he ordered the review in an effort to strengthen public confidence in Maryland's election process.

Kaetzel said the review should be completed by the end of the month, allowing local jurisdictions to obtain the new machines as scheduled in September.

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