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Md. officials worry about voting system

February 17, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - With a flurry of new voting laws as the Maryland primary approaches, questions about whether the state can implement the changes in time continue among both lawmakers and the governor's office.

So many concerns have been voiced that Gov. Robert Ehrlich asked Wednesday that a new law allowing voters to cast ballots early be deferred until 2008. In a letter to Gilles Burger, chairman of the Board of Elections, Ehrlich said if the changes are made now, "I no longer have confidence in the State Board of Elections' ability to conduct fair and accurate elections in 2006."

On Thursday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila Hixson invited members of the election law subcommittee to a closed-door meeting with representatives of Diebold Election Systems - manufacturer of the touch-screen voting machines the state now uses - to discuss the machines' accuracy in light of reports they had been decertified in other states.

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Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, plans to introduce legislation to delay voting law changes until 2008, but because the deadline for introduction of bills expired last week, the bill will have to go through the House Rules Committee before it can be considered.

Ehrlich last year vetoed bills to allow early voting and provisional ballots (ballots cast outside a voter's home precinct) but the General Assembly overrode the vetoes early in this year's legislative session.

Along with early voting and provisional ballots, some groups are pushing for a system for verifying ballots, or a "paper trail." Several bills requiring verification, which can't be done with the touch-screen system the state now uses, have been filed this year.

Several news organizations, including The Herald-Mail, sought access to Thursday's meeting with Diebold representatives but were told subcommittee meetings did not have to be open. Journalists were given copies of a 1999 opinion by the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board - written in response to a request by an organization seeking access to meetings of a task force studying cult activities in institutions of higher education - that said subcommittees are not subject to the Open Meetings Act.

Myers, a member of the subcommittee, said afterward that despite previous reports, the Diebold touch-screen models used in Maryland were now certified in every state, and that the Independent Testing Authority had determined that with a failure rate of .73 percent, the system is more accurate than the optical scan system that paper-trail advocates have been pushing. The optical scan system posted a 2.68 percent failure rate, Myers said.

But Diebold officials had been slow in passing information to the subcommittee and to the state Elections Board, Myers said, adding that Del. Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery, had questioned Mark Radke, director of voting for Diebold, about why Maryland officials hadn't been updated. Myers said Radke agreed that more information should have been forthcoming.

Myers said he believes this year's elections should be conducted "as they were last time." He added that he is "firmly convinced" that questions about the machines' accuracy are "the work of special interest groups who will do anything they can to cause confusion" before the elections.

He defended the decision to close the meeting with Diebold representatives, saying Hixson had invited subcommittee members as a courtesy and that it was not an official subcommittee meeting.

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