- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

GLEN BURNIE, Md. — Emma Skrenchuk is sick and tired of hearing about Maryland’s new $55 million electronic voting system — how it will forever eliminate hanging chads and disenfranchised voters and how it’s as easy to use as an automated teller machine.

“In my old age, I don’t need anything new to confuse me,” said the 81-year-old from Brooklyn Park, seconds after she began slogging her way through a recent demonstration of the machine at an Anne Arundel County supermarket. “I’m just now used to the old way of writing the ballot. I do not like newfangled stuff. I don’t like touch-tone telephones.”

Mrs. Skrenchuk’s daughter, Jeanne Carpenter, put it this way: “She’s not tech-friendly. It’s going to be a little difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. I think they’re going to have the most difficulty with this generation of voters.”

As tomorrow’s primary election approached, state elections officials and the company that makes the touch-screen machines were working overtime to try to convince leery voters such as Mrs. Skrenchuk that the system will live up to its hype.

Across the country, dozens of states are scrambling to replace punch-card and lever systems with modern voting equipment to qualify for federal matching funds through the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

Maryland is spending $55.6 million to move toward an entirely electronic system, although legislators have heard testimony on a bill that would force the state to print a copy of every vote in future elections. House Majority Leader Kumar Barve said a printout of each ballot would create an individual record of how a person voted and ensure accuracy.

Christopher Hood, a spokesman for the company that makes the voting machines — Diebold Election Systems, based in North Canton, Ohio — said some voter resistance is natural.

“This is no different than when we went from the horse-and-carriage to automobiles,” Mr. Hood said at a recent demonstration in Bel Air. “A few elections down the road, you’re going to see total acceptance of the system.”

Still, some experts and voters are concerned that the system might not be all it has been advertised. A team of programmers assembled by Columbia-based RABA Technologies simulated an attack on the system in January, finding that the computers contained “vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious individuals.”

Michael Wertheimer of RABA said hackers could easily compromise the 16,000 machines in precincts statewide. RABA’s report, which focused on hardware, is the latest study by computer scientists to conclude that electronic systems pose significant security risks.

Linda Noel, a homemaker from Glen Burnie, said she felt nervous about the machine, even after getting a demonstration.

“You get used to one thing and something new comes along,” Mrs. Noel said. “I think they should stick with one thing if they can.”

To allay such fears, Maryland counties are demonstrating the portable machines at supermarkets, community and senior centers and other places voters congregate.

Officials have started a $1 million public relations blitz involving billboards, radio and television commercials, a Web site and more than 1.5 million pamphlets and brochures. Some critics complain that tax dollars are being used to offset the publicity about security flaws in the Diebold system. State officials counter that the campaign merely explains the new system to voters.

Only Baltimore won’t be using the machines this election. The city is scheduled to switch to Diebold in 2006.

In Harford County, officials are recruiting 850 judges — 225 more than last election — to answer questions about the machines during the primary.

“Voting is very important to people, and when they step up to the voting booth, it heightens their anxiety,” said Molly Neal, the county’s elections director. “We’re trying to overstaff the polling places because of the new system.”

In the meantime, voters who show up at the demonstrations are getting a sneak peak of what they can expect during the primary.

Demonstrations include step-by-step instructions. The voter first slides a plastic card into a slot, reads the on-screen instructions and then votes — touching the illuminated name of a person or proposal.

After reviewing their choices, the voter casts a final ballot. It’s impossible to reinsert the card once someone’s pressed the “cast ballot” button and the card has been released, Mr. Hood said.

Members of the RABA study, however, found that individual machines could be disabled by jamming a voter card into a terminal or lifting it up and pulling out wires.

“These incidents of jamming something into the machine are really just acts of vandalism instead of being just security breaches,” Mr. Hood added.

Eleanor Dotson, 74, a chief judge for Anne Arundel County who has worked at polling stations since she was 21, said some voters would be confused no matter how many demonstrations they got.

“Change is going to be hard for some people, but they’ll get it done,” Miss Dotson said. “Those diehards are going to vote regardless. By the time the general election comes [in November], they’ll be experts. They’ll be zip, zip, zip and out the door.”

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