Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Maryland is on track to repeat the chaos of the 2000 election in Florida.

Even without “butterfly” ballots and hanging chads, Maryland faces several elections-related problems that threaten the accuracy and promptness of Tuesday’s results.

Uncertainty looms about the state’s electronic voter rolls, the number and training of poll workers, and anticipated challenges in the aftermath of Election Day.

“I am very concerned,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat. “I don’t want anything to undermine this democracy.”

• Electronic voting

The security and reliability of the state’s electronic voting machines have been questioned for months, and the machines’ performance in September’s primaries have reinforced doubts about Tuesday’s balloting.

“We’re setting ourselves up to become another Florida. … How can you have confidence in the outcome of the election?” said the Rev. Bobby Henry, an attorney and associate minister at Jericho City of Praise in Landover. “Have we gotten these voting machines fixed?”

According to a recent study by Princeton University, Diebold Election Systems Inc.’s electronic voting machines — which are being used in Maryland and other states — are “vulnerable to a number of extremely serious attacks that undermine the accuracy and credibility of the vote counts it produces.”

The Princeton report echoes the findings of several other studies that have found the machines vulnerable to hackers and viruses.

Two weeks ago, a 2004 version of the computer code used in Diebold’s machines was mailed anonymously to a former delegate.

Many officials have railed against the machines’ lack of a paper trail to verify votes. The Democrat-controlled legislature this year killed a bill that would have set up machines to scan paper ballots.

In September’s primary elections, faulty electronic voting machines, some of which rebooted continually after 40 votes had been cast, caused extensive delays. Many voters were turned away from the polls.

Diebold officials say they have fixed the problem, and state elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone has said each local board will use paper voter rolls as a backup, but computer science specialists are skeptical.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, have criticized the reliability and security of the machines and have encouraged voters to use absentee ballots.

• Absentee ballots

The Maryland State Board of Elections yesterday said that voters have requested a record 183,239 absentee ballots.

A state elections official said that Democrats have requested 90,097 and Republicans 75,209.

Because absentee votes are not included in Election Day tallies, final results for close contests won’t be available for several days after the election.

“If it’s a very close election, it could turn on the absentee ballots and the provisional ballots,” said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat.

What’s more, absentee ballots have their own issues with regard to security and reliability.

“When you send out a ballot, you don’t know who got it and who’s voting it. … Somebody could give a bribe to somebody to vote for them,” said Robert J. Antonetti Sr., acting elections director for Prince George’s County.

Anne Arundel County elections officials have reported that some voters are making multiple requests for absentee ballots, which could result in several ballots being mailed to them.

Voters who return multiple ballots should be caught in a search of the state’s computerized voter rolls database, officials said, adding that it nonetheless creates more work for elections workers.

“It’s a very, very difficult time,” said Barbara Fisher, Anne Arundel’s elections director.

• Elections judges

Judges failed to show or showed up late in Prince George’s County and in Baltimore for the primary elections, causing polls to open late.

Those jurisdictions, among others, were directed to recruit and train new judges before Election Day.

Most counties have met their goals, but Prince George’s, where elections officials initially estimated they needed 1,000 new judges, has recruited fewer than 300.

Each polling location is required to have at least one Democrat and one Republican chief judge.

But the state attorney general’s office has issued an opinion saying that polling places can open on time even if the required judges are not present.

The Washington Times has reported that local elections boards have had trouble recruiting younger judges who are more skilled with electronic voting machines.

• Legal challenges

Democratic and Republican officials in Maryland are marshaling a cadre of lawyers in anticipation of legal challenges to vote-gathering and vote-counting procedures in Tuesday’s general elections.

Maryland Democrats have assembled about 500 lawyers and poll watchers. Republicans have a team of a few hundred but are not releasing an exact number.

“We have numerous areas of concern, and our attorneys will ensure that our election is carried out with integrity and honesty, and that every valid voter that wants to vote can vote and does,” said Audra Miller, Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman.

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