Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Election workers in Fairfax County yesterday challenged critics of touch-screen voting machines to test the new equipment before the Nov. 2 presidential election so they can see firsthand that the machines are foolproof.

During a voting-machine demonstration at the county’s Providence District office in Merrifield, workers said they can prove to critics and voters that their votes will be counted and protected.

“People see us at demos and say they don’t trust the machines,” said Blanche Kapustin, electoral board representative for Fairfax County. “We tell them, ‘Come play. See if you can mess it up.’”

The machines are not susceptible to hacking and offer review screens for voters to double-check their choices. They also have battery backups and three separate memories that record all votes, officials said.

More than 3,000 volunteers are being trained to use the machines in Fairfax County, Miss Kapustin said. Representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties will have poll watchers on Election Day, many of whom will keep a close eye on the touch-screen machines.

Officials try to staff each polling place with a chief from one party and an assistant chief from the opposite party. “Just in case,” Miss Kapustin said.

Electoral board representative Curtis Reaves said he invites all critics to attend a demonstration and show workers how their problem scenarios could happen. “We ask them to demonstrate the problem — but the machines are so foolproof,” he said.

In Virginia, each polling place can choose its own voting equipment. There are more than 20 types of machines used in the state, and each machine is both nationally and state-certified.

Fairfax County and other local jurisdictions have held a host of demonstrations for voters who are worried about using the touch-screen machines.

Critics in Maryland on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the Maryland State Board of Elections and its administrator, Linda H. Lamone, saying the state is unfairly blocking them from posting poll watchers at precincts.

“[The state doesn’t] get to discriminate against people because they don’t like their point of view,” said Linda Schade of TrueVoteMD, the group suing the state agency.

Members of TrueVoteMD are critical of the machines because the equipment doesn’t offer a paper voting record. The multiparty group, made up of volunteers from the Democratic, Republican and Green parties, unsuccessfully tried to stop the machines from being used in Maryland this year, but the state agreed last week to allow its members to stand in the polling places to watch for problems with the machines. The group also wanted to post people immediately outside the doors to interview voters and give them information on electronic voting.

The Maryland Attorney General’s office later said volunteers had to stay behind the 100-foot boundary outside the polling places. Under the law, political parties and others involved in electioneering are not allowed to be inside polling places.

TrueVoteMD members say they are simply collecting information from voters and that forcing its members behind that line would violate the First Amendment rights of the poll watchers. The lawsuit argues the group is no different from exit poll workers who can cross the line to query people on their votes.

The group is asking a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore to impose a restraining order on the state before the election that would allow the group’s estimated 300 volunteer poll watchers within the 100-foot limit.

Miss Schade, who is registered with the Green Party, said last month her group will document problems with the machines and use them to mount a challenge to the election results.

The group’s plans, which include handing out fliers with messages reading, “Don’t let the Computer Eat Your Vote,” are tantamount to electioneering, said Judith Arnold, an assistant attorney general representing the state board of elections.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s State Board of Elections began a series of tests of a few of the 16,000 Diebold touch-screen machines yesterday at elections offices in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Howard and Talbot counties.

State officials, representatives of the League of Women Voters and members of the public will randomly check selected machines and compare their accuracy against paper ballots.

In the first of a series of tests in Annapolis yesterday, a machine chosen at random accurately recorded the results of 40 test ballots.

But volunteers who were simultaneously conducting a paper count of the ballots made two errors and had to recheck the ballots to get an accurate count. At the end, the paper count matched the printout from the electronic machine.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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