Group Calls for Decertification of Maryland Touch Screen Voting Machines

An activist group critical of Maryland's touch-screen voting machines wants the state Board of Elections to decertify the system because it doesn't create a paper trail.

The formal complaint, made by the Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland (search), cited machine breakdowns in Fairfax County, Va., elections Tuesday as evidence of the voting equipment's weakness.

"If they had a paper audit trail, it would be very easy" to determine if any tampering occurred while machines were being fixed, said Kevin Zeese, the complaint's author. "Now they have to try to piece it back together."

Maryland's voting system had no reported problems in the five cities using it Tuesday. But the difficulties in Fairfax County prompted a lawsuit and added fuel to the Maryland debate over the machines, which has raged since a July Johns Hopkins University study said the machine's software was open to attacks from hackers.

Machine manufacturer Diebold Election Systems (search) has improved its software security, and state officials plan to install the machines statewide by 2006.

Zeese's group agrees with the Hopkins study's conclusion that the machines should be modified to create a paper record of each vote. The paper trail could be used in recounts or random audits of the machines' accuracy.

"This argument has gone back to the early '30s or '20s when we first implemented mechanical voting machines," said Donna Duncan, the state board election management director.

Voting machines must pass a battery of tests to verify their performance, making a secondary paper system unnecessary, she said.

The state elections board has not yet received Zeese's formal complaint, Duncan said.

"There is no open counting or transparency in the election," Zeese's complaint charges, adding that Maryland is ceding its vote-counting responsibility to Diebold, a private company.

"Even the state Board of Elections does not know what's in the software," Zeese said. "We're supposed to have open vote counts in this country."

California halted certification of Diebold machines indefinitely, the complaint said.

While Fairfax's troubled machines are similar, the WINvote (search) machines are manufactured by a different company, Advanced Voting Solutions (searchof Texas.

Fairfax County Republicans filed suit Tuesday after nine touch-screen voting machines malfunctioned. Authorities took the faulty machines to the County Government Center and then returned them to polling places, according to an Associated Press report of the lawsuit's claims.

Fairfax officials now must track down hundreds of votes cast on the malfunctioning machines without the benefit of hard copies, Zeese said.

Maryland policies forbid removing voting machines from polling places and returning them, said David Heller, a project manager for the Maryland elections board.

"We don't want to give the impression to voters that we're off behind a curtain manipulating the machine," Heller said.

In a situation similar to Fairfax, machines would just be turned off and left at the polling place while spares are brought in, Heller said. The computer memory cards from the malfunctioning machines would be counted with all the others, he said.

Maryland is continually reviewing its election procedures, and may look at the Fairfax situation to see if it holds any lessons for the state, Duncan said.

Zeese led a protest in Takoma Park during the city's municipal election Tuesday. He voted on a Diebold machine, but he also lodged an informal complaint arguing that he couldn't verify his vote was tabulated.

Election officials said they received rave reviews about the machines' performance Tuesday, especially in Salisbury and Chestertown, where voters had never used them before.

Six other Maryland municipalities declined to use the machines in their Tuesday elections for a variety of reasons.