- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

As 2010 dawns, county boards of elections in Maryland are readying themselves for a midterm election process that will continue to strain systems put in place following the 2002 passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

Signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 29, 2002, HAVA was a reaction to the nationwide scrutiny following the 2000 election process, in which nearly 2 million ballots were disqualified because of largely antiquated, malfunctioning voting machines, according to federal elections officials. HAVA has provided federal money to states to purchase upgraded electronic voting equipment and train local election workers with this equipment.

Despite resources made available by HAVA, Maryland is tentatively planning to return to paper ballots for the 2010 election. Maryland would abandon its $65 million electronic system while continuing to pay off capital lease costs associated with electronic voting machines until 2014, according to a story this month in the Frederick News-Post.

Touch-screen machines were used initially in 2002 in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Allegany and Dorchester counties and were used in every jurisdiction except Baltimore in 2004, with Baltimore starting in 2006, according to Southern Maryland Newspapers Online.

In 2007, Maryland legislators passed a bill providing that the State Board of Elections “may not certify a voting system unless it determines the voting system will provide a specified ‘voter verifiable paper record.’ ” The bill also outlines requirements enhancing “accessibility for voters with disabilities.”

The Maryland General Assembly’s 2007 regular-session House Bill 18 and Senate Bill 392 estimated local governments’ expenditures could increase collectively by up to $15 million in fiscal 2009, $3.4 million in fiscal 2010 and $0.9 million in fiscal 2011.

Additional costs include voter outreach and could range from $15,500 in Garrett County, the westernmost county in Maryland, to more than $500,000 in Montgomery County and Baltimore, according to local elections boards cited in the bill.

In the past decade, the annual budget for the Maryland State Board of Elections has accelerated exponentially. In fiscal 2000, its budget, limited to state funds, was $3.136 million, while in fiscal 2008, with a combination of federal funds from HAVA, state funds and special funds largely coming from county contributions, the Board of Elections’ budget was $27.504 million.

While on Maryland Public Television’s monthly “Ask the Governor ” show on Dec. 16, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley was questioned by a caller from rural Caroline County about the need for the state to purchase new optical scan machines when the state is still in possession of the older optical scan machines.

“When we started into this about two or three years ago, as young Americans were fighting abroad to defend the ability of people to cast votes in free elections, we thought that it was a prudent and wise investment,” Mr. O’Malley answered. “I’m hearing more and more from county governments that we need to go back and possibly postpone the switch to these machines, especially with the shortness of time and the unpredictability of county revenues in this recession.”

The costs to purchase new machines would come exclusively from state and local funds.

Maryland’s pending switch to optical scan machines comes amid a projected $1.8 billion shortfall in next year’s state budget, according to T. Eloise Foster, the state’s secretary of budget and management.

According to SAVEourVotes.org, a statewide nonpartisan and nonprofit grass-roots group based in Columbia, Md., that works for “Secure, Accessible, and Verifiable Elections in Maryland,” touch-screen systems are costly for the simple reason that more equipment is required for their use than for the optical scan system.

Voters have expressed their discontent that electronic machines do not produce a voting receipt verifying their votes, and election officials have encountered problems when electronic machines break down and there is no backup to record votes.

Optical scan advocates argue that paper ballots allow for an easier recount process if needed, as infamously seen in Florida in 2000.

As Maryland legislators return to Annapolis in January, a collaborative decision with leaders of all 23 county governments and the city of Baltimore will have to be made.

• John Muller is a writer and photographer living in Montgomery County.

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