- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

Maryland’s new electronic voting system is “worthy of voter trust,” said a consultant who helped prepare a report on the system. But, the consultant cautioned, there are numerous potential security flaws that need to be corrected.

Michael Wertheimer of RABA Technologies testified Thursday at a hearing before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that “we feel the system will accurately render” results in next month’s primary election. But he listed changes that should be made before Marylanders go to the polls March 2, along with other long-term recommendations to improve security of the touch-screen voting systems.

Maryland spent $55.6 million to buy the machines from Diebold Election Systems Inc. of North Canton, Ohio, for every jurisdiction except the city of Baltimore, which already had a touch-screen system.

Concerns arose last summer about whether touch-screen systems are vulnerable to fraud after a report critical of the Diebold machines’ security was issued by several authors, including Aviel Rubin, an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The General Assembly hired Columbia-based RABA to study how vulnerable computer voting systems are to tampering and fraud.

Linda Lamone, administrator of the State Board of Elections, told committee members some of the recommended changes had been made; others will have to wait until after the primary to avoid problems more serious than those they were intended to solve.

The March primary will be the first time all Maryland voters use touch-screen machines, but state officials say they have been used in 20 elections in some counties and towns without any problems.

mWise old owl

Lobbyists have been bending the ears of Virginia lawmakers to get money for their causes since the session started in mid-January, but workers from the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News tried a different approach last week — letting animals do the talking.

The great horned owl drew the most attention, as some thought the enormous bird was a stuffed prop. But when the owl turned his head and opened his wide eyes, it brought laughter to the halls of the General Assembly building.

“We’d love to have some of the money that’s possibly out there,” said James Dean, a spokesman for the museum, which features animals indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic area in an educational setting. “We’re trying to make them aware we’re here. This gets their attention.” The museum plans to open a $22 million expansion in March, but that project has not been fully funded.

Mr. Dean said the museum has been “scrambling” for public or private money. Every year, he said, the museum must turn away 30,000 children because it can’t meet demand.

To convince lawmakers their cause is worthy, Mr. Dean and other museum workers had the legislators pose for pictures with the great horned owl, the largest species of owl in Virginia, with the red-faced screech owl, the smallest species of owl in the commonwealth, and with a striped skunk.

After the lawmakers posed with the owls, museum workers e-mailed the photos with the subject line: “Two wise guys.”

mUnbuckled bill

One of two bills to toughen enforcement of Virginia’s seat belt law was tabled by its sponsor last week.

Delegate Joe T. May, Loudoun County Republican, said Thursday his bill did not have enough support to get through the House Transportation Committee. The panel endorsed a similar bill by one vote in 2003, but the committee has five new members this year.

Mr. May isn’t giving up hope. Another version of the bill is pending in the Senate, and Mr. May said he will try to change a few minds before that measure is sent to the House later this month.

The legislation would allow police to stop and ticket motorists who fail to buckle up. Under the current law, a driver may be ticketed for a seat belt violation only if he or she is stopped for another traffic offense.

Gov. Mark Warner lobbied hard for the seat belt legislation last year but has not made it a priority in this session, focusing instead on his tax reform and budget proposals. The bill passed the Senate and then squeaked through the House by one vote, but delegates reconsidered the bill a day later and rejected it — again by one vote.

mVote against abuse

After lengthy and at times forceful debate on the floor, a divided Virginia Senate passed legislation that would require clergy to report suspected instances of child abuse.

The bill, which passed Thursday on a 22-17 vote and now heads to the House, would add clergy to the list of professionals required to report suspected abuse. The list already includes teachers, health care workers and law enforcement officials.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax County Democrat, was seen by many as a response to the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

“What we’ve read in the newspapers and heard in the media over these past few years speaks volume about the silence, the silence of these abuses,” Sen. H. Russell Potts, Winchester Republican, said in a passionate appeal in the Senate chamber.

“Some of these ministers or priests did not have courage nor the integrity to speak out about abuses that they know happened.”

The measure, already law in 37 states, does not specifically target child abuse committed by clergy members, but abuse committed by anyone — family members or any individual — that is noticed by a priest, rabbi or other cleric.

Failure to report within 72 hours of the first suspicion of child abuse or neglect would mean a $500 fine. Subsequent failures to report would be subject to additional fines of $100 to $1,000.

The bill provides clergy with immunity from any litigation resulting from incorrect accusations, provided they were not made in malice. It also would exclude any information provided to priests in confessional, or to clergy of other denominations in a similar covenant, such as counseling.

Opponents said the measure unfairly turns church officials into de facto law enforcement officers.

The bill passed the Senate last year with virtually no opposition. Sen. Nick Rerras, Norfolk Republican, was the only vote of dissent. It later failed in House committee.

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this column, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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