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Maryland Voters Urged to Cast Absentee Ballots This Year

Expressing zero confidence in the touchscreen voting machines to be used in Maryland on Election Day, the two candidates for governor have urged voters to cast absentee ballots rather than go to the polls on Nov. 7.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley have both expressed doubts about machines made by Diebold Election Systems Inc. that are used in polls throughout the state.

Until this year, only people who were unable to go to the polls could vote by absentee ballot. But a new law allows voters to cast absentee ballots without giving a reason.

The push toward absentee ballots comes after computer glitches and human errors in Montgomery County, Md., polls kept some voters from submitting ballots during the Sept. 12 primary election.

A former Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate said he plans to cast an absentee ballot himself, and called the situation troublesome for voters.

"This is inexcusable," Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan said at a press conference Tuesday. "We keep getting these machines that aren't working from the state, and we can't get it together at the county."

But not everyone doubts the integrity of the machines.

Nancy H. Dacek, president of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said Tuesday she had complete confidence in the Diebold voting machines. She said the most significant problem in Montgomery County during the primary was not computer glitches, but a human error that left polls without the electronic cards necessary to access machines.

"Except for one other occasion, we've had very smooth elections and we expect this one to be a very smooth election too," she said. "Nobody can guarantee perfection, but I don't see that there will be any problems."

Election officials have said widespread use of absentee ballots could delay election results. Dacek urged voters to go to the polls as they normally would unless they have a reason to vote by absentee ballot. The board is prepared for absentee ballots, she said, but a flood of them could take days to count.

Duncan said accuracy in counting the votes is more important than delays caused by absentee ballots.

"Human error is when you have one or two polling places miss something," Duncan said. "When every polling place misses something, that's gross incompetence."

The problems, which included flaws in the voting machines, misplaced electronic cards and absent poll judges, forced morning voters to use paper ballots. When polls ran out of the provisional ballots, voters were turned away and polls had to stay open an extra hour to compensate.

Last month, Diebold said it fixed a design flaw that made the machines freeze repeatedly on the day of the primary.

Linda Lamone, state elections administrator, said in a statement last week that kinks in the Diebold machines are worked out and the machines will work smoothly during general elections.

Duncan said, however, he wouldn't be fully confident in the computers until those he believes are responsible for primary mishaps are held accountable.

"I don't think things are really going to change until they get new leadership," Duncan said. "The administrator [Dacek] is in over her head, and I think that's true at the state level as well."

Duncan last month called for Ehrlich to fire Dacek, president of Montgomery County's Board of Elections. He also requested Margaret Jurgenson, the county's election director, be removed from her post.

Samuel Statland, the secretary of the Montgomery County board of elections, said Duncan's response was justified.

"We made an egregious error in the primary," he said. "But we've worked our tails off correcting it."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.