- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

Critics of touch-screen voting machines in the Washington region and national voting rights groups are already lining up legal challenges to any November elections marred by computer malfunctions.

But voting officials in Virginia, Maryland and the District say they are confident the new touch-screen machines will function properly on Election Day.

All three jurisdictions use touch-screen voting machines in many polling places. The District allows voters to choose whether they want to use the new machines or optical scanning machines.

Groups such as TrueVote MD plan to have observers at polling places on Nov. 2 to document any problems with the machines. If any occur, they will be used to mount a challenge to the election results, said Linda Schade of TrueVote MD, which unsuccessfully has tried to stop the machines from being used in Maryland this year.

“These machines are very vulnerable to human error, computer malfunction and fraud,” said Miss Schade, who is registered with the Green Party. “Florida 2000 didn’t leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth. There absolutely have always been problems with voting, but the thing about these [touch-screen] systems is that you can have a catastrophic failure.

“If voters are effectively disenfranchised, TrueVote will definitely litigate,” she said.

Other national groups opposed to touch-screen machines also are preparing challenges.

A survey of 1,000 people conducted by www.FindLaw.com, a legal Web site, showed roughly four in 10 worry about potential problems with vote tampering and accuracy with the electronic voting machines.

However, elections officials in each jurisdiction said they are not concerned about any problems occurring.

“We have a great deal of confidence in the electronic machines,” said Barbara Cockrell, assistant secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections. “There’s a lot of scary stuff out there, and we want to be sure that people know they are reliable.”

She said the machines offer review screens for voters to double-check their choices and that the machines have battery back-ups and three separate memories that record all votes.

Other voting officials said because the machines are not connected to a network or the Internet, the chances of hacking are nonexistent.

But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, generated national attention earlier this month when she had trouble operating the new machines.

During a demonstration at the Takoma Park Folk Festival, Miss Mikulski apparently inadvertently brushed against the sensitive screens so that when she tried to vote “No” on a sample ballot, the machine displayed her vote as a “Yes.”

Maryland State Board of Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone said in that instance, the machine had functioned, “exactly as it is supposed to work,” because it is designed to keep people from over-voting.

She said the machine’s directions explain how to change a vote.

Last month, the Maryland State Board of Elections placed Mrs. Lamone on paid administrative leave but has not released its charges against her. A judge said she can continue to work while she fights the attempt to fire her, saying her removal could throw the November election into chaos.

The electronic voting machines are used in every Maryland jurisdiction except Baltimore. Several counties have used the machines since 2002, and the state has had “no problems with the equipment, ever,” Mrs. Lamone said.

“We have extensively tested the equipment and all the analysis shows it counts 100 percent accurately,” she said. “Touch-screen voting has been used for over 25 years and there is not one single credible report of hacking.”

Miss Cockrell said in Virginia, each polling place can choose its own voting equipment, making it “more complicated” to tamper with. All the machines are certified both nationally and by the state.

“It’s been tested and tried,” Miss Cockrell said. “We have had no recorded incidences of votes being lost on any of the direct electronic voting equipment.”

But critics said the lack of a paper voting record threatens the integrity of the touch-screen equipment.

Peter Rubin, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center, said it will be difficult for anyone to successfully challenge this year’s election results.

Any legal challenges must be decided by measuring voter intent, but without a paper trail that is “impossible,” he said.

“We haven’t had a problem like what happened last time in Florida in 100 years,” he said. “It’s possible things will replicate themselves so precisely, but I wouldn’t predict that. It seems unlikely to me.”

The bipartisan TrueVote MD sued Maryland over the lack of a paper trail. A judge must still decide on the merits of the lawsuit, but disagreed with the group and allowed the machines to be used in November.

In the District, each polling place has optical scanners and at least one touch-screen machine, so voters can choose which they want to use, said Bill O’Field, a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.

He said the District has had “no complaints” about the machines, which about one-third of voters used in the January presidential primary.

However, city election officials have had problems reporting election returns in a timely manner both times the city has used the touch-screen machines.

D.C. election officials took until past midnight to tally results in the January presidential primary, the first time they used touch-screen machines. Those delays prompted the D.C. Council to conduct hearings to look into the problem. Similar delays occurred during the Sept. 14 council primary elections.

Representatives from the presidential campaigns also will have poll watchers.

The campaign for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry last week sent supporters an e-mail asking for donations on a “special project” set up in case a vote recount is necessary.

“We have to expect the unexpected on and after Election Day,” the e-mail reads. “Our campaign is already considering our options should John Kerry or George Bush pursue a recount like the famous Florida ballot dispute in 2000.”

The e-mail states that the money is needed, because President Bush’s campaign raised $11 million more than the Gore campaign during the recount.

Jim McElhatton contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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