GLEN BURNIE, Md. – The state's new touch-screen voting machines passed a test Thursday by the Maryland State Board of Elections (search), as man and machine went head-to-head to see who could tally votes more accurately. The machine won.
The Diebold voting machines (search) will be used in precincts across Maryland in the Nov. 2 presidential election. For months they have been a center of contention in the state, with some citizen groups saying they are susceptible to error and fraud, which they worry could mean the same sort of vote-counting confusion Florida saw in the 2000 election.
Nikki Trella, the board's election reform director, said the successful "parallel testing" demonstration proved that the voting machines are reliable.
Parallel testing is a sort of mock vote where a machine and a group of people count the same stack of sample ballots, and then the results are compared for accuracy.
The test was performed using a voting machine to be stationed at Bates Middle School in Annapolis. The machine was randomly chosen from a warehouse by Rose Brooks, legislative assistant to Anne Arundel County Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Republican representing part of Glen Burnie, near Baltimore.
The voting machine included all the final software needed for Election Day, according to Trella.
In the test, election workers passed out 50 mock ballots, which were filled out and returned. Then two people read off the votes as two more tallied them by hand and another put them into the voting machine. Afterward, the hand-count total was compared with a printout of the machine total and they matched.
Despite final success, the test did point out a few flaws ... but in the people, not the machine.
A quick tally was done after every 10 votes to see if both human vote recorders had matching figures. There was a miscount in four of the five checks. However, recounts solved the problem quickly each time.
"When you put humans in (to the vote-counting process), that's what you can get," Trella said of the mistakes.
Trella said parallel testing will also be performed on four secured machines at the State Board of Elections on Election Day.
She said this is to assuage worries that a computer virus could be hiding in the machines waiting to activate until Election Day.
Robert Ferraro, co-founder of the touch-screen voting machine opposition group TrueVoteMD (search), attended the demonstration. He said he wonders what happens if those Election Day tests show a problem.
"My question is if you do a parallel test on Election Day and there is a mistake, then what?" he said.
Linda Lamone, Maryland elections' chief, said she has complete faith in the voting machines' accuracy, but if there was an error then her staff would audit the machines to pinpoint the problem.
Ferraro said he is still not convinced the machines are secure.
"The testing is good, but it doesn't guarantee accuracy," he said. "The best test would be a paper audit trail on Election Day."
The lack of any paper trail to confirm votes has been one of TrueVoteMD's major complaints about the machines. In September, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected its argument, ruling the state did not have to provide paper ballots or a paper record for the machines.
The demonstration came a day before another meeting of TrueVoteMD and the State Board of Elections, this time in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. A judge is deciding whether TrueVoteMD poll watchers may break the normal 100-foot limit that partisan activists must maintain from polling places.
Ferraro said the state's position is an infringement of the First Amendment (search) guarantee of free speech, and the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection.
"We're not even going to be as intrusive as exit-pollers," he said, citing a group allowed within the 100-foot limit.
Lamone backs the decision, saying TrueVoteMD poll watchers could interfere with voters.
"It's intended to create a bubble of safety - a haven to protect voters from harassment from anybody," she said of the limit. "I don't want those people in there harassing the voters of Maryland."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.