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Md. Gears Up for Primary Test of Voting Machines

Maryland's decision to use touch-screen voting machines (search) in its March 2 primary has moved it to the forefront of nationwide election reform, according to a report released last week.

But questions about the reliability of the new machines in a large-scale election have some wondering if the forefront is where Maryland should be.

Still, state officials say some change is better than a repeat of the contested presidential election of 2000.

"There will never be a perfect election," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. But with polls showing voters split politically, Hoyer said there is "a premium on accurate elections."

Toward that end, he sponsored the 2002 Help America Vote Act (search) (HAVA), which gets its first test this year. Elements were on display Tuesday in New Hampshire's presidential primary, though not a touch-screen system.

The law gives states nearly $4 billion to educate voters and poll workers and to replace punch-card and lever machines with more modern voting equipment. It also calls for the creation of statewide voter databases and requires first-time voters who registered by mail to show proof of identity at the polls if they did not provide that identification with their registration.

"The whole objective of HAVA is to make it easier to vote, provide assurance for voters and ensure there is no cheating," Hoyer said.

Maryland has already met most of the law's requirements — it was granted a waiver on creating a voter database — and is one of only two states, along with Georgia, that will use statewide touch-screen voting, according to electionline.org, a non-partisan Web site devoted to election reform.

Maryland is "one of the few states that went ahead of the pack, along with Georgia and Florida," said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org. "They took a long look at their deficiencies and created a top-down controlled system."

But the move away from optical scanners, punch cards and levers has not been without controversy.

A study by computer experts found security flaws in machines made by Diebold Election Systems (search), an Ohio-based company that has a $55 million contract to provide more than 11,000 machines to Maryland. The study warned that multiple votes by the same person could be cast, but the state went ahead with the purchase after a review by a private consultant and assurances that the glitches could be fixed.

During the 2002 elections, Allegany, Dorchester, Montgomery and Prince George's counties used Diebold machines without any major incidents. Any problems reported with the machines have not been software-related, but have been along the lines of electrical outages, Hoyer said.

Seligson said that while Diebold machines have performed well in various places around the country, it has only been used in a statewide election once before, in Georgia.

Hoyer concedes that problems with the accuracy of Diebold-tallied results are possible — errors, either mechanical or human, have always been part of the election process, he said. But he believes the touch-screen system is the best way to cut down on mistakes.

"This voter system is more user-friendly. It's easy to use and easy to understand," Hoyer said. "I have far greater confidence that Americans will vote and be confident in their vote."

But that confidence could be shattered by a close or contested vote, Seligson said. Since the touch-screen systems do not keep a paper record of votes, he said, people could become suspicious if it came down to one or two machines that miscounted votes.

"If a recount is necessary, calls will grow louder for paper trails," he said.

Congress is already considering an amendment requiring a paper trail, but Hoyer said Friday it is too soon to judge if that will be necessary.

Suspicions have already been raised by a November letter for a Republican fund-raiser at Diebold Chairman and CEO Walden O'Dell's house. O'Dell's letter vowed to "deliver" Ohio's electoral votes to President Bush, but Diebold said the letter reflected O'Dell's personal views, not the company's.

But any problems that arise will be overcome, said Hoyer and Rep. Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio. The two men co-sponsored the Help America Vote Act.

"At the end of the day, we'll look back, and although there are some glitches, we'll say this makes for a healthier voting process," Ney said.

Maryland will find out sooner than most states if election reform is on the right track, Seligson said.

"Maryland moved ahead of the rest of the country," he said. "This year will be a test to see if that decision paid off."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.