Md. Voting Machine Indecision Leaves City Elections in Limbo

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Local election officials in Maryland are in limbo, waiting for a study of state voting-machine security to be released before they can decide how to run upcoming municipal elections.

"We're all just waiting," said Wicomico County Election Director Judy Ritter, a coordinator of Salisbury's Nov. 4 general election. "With the [state] election officials, we're very flexible. We do what we have to do."

The state-ordered study, which could be released as early as Monday, will not only determine what voting method Marylanders use in the 2004 presidential election, but also how tens of thousands vote for mayors and city councils this year.

Local elections officers have been put in the position of creating backup plans and putting training on hold because state officials are having second thoughts about the touch-screen voting machines (search) they just purchased.

Nineteen municipalities across the state have elections scheduled in September, October or November, according to the Maryland Municipal League (search). Several had planned to use the voting system that the state purchased from Diebold Elections Systems (search) in July.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ordered Science Applications International Corp. (search) to review the Diebold system's security in early August after a Johns Hopkins University (search) study found its software insecure.

The software was so open to attack, the Hopkins study found, that even polling place janitors could compromise the system. Diebold stands by its system, saying researchers made faulty assumptions about how officials would use it in an actual election.

While the state completes its own study, Ehrlich Communications Director Paul E. Schurick asked state elections officials not to speculate about its results. The state board also asked county officials to suspend voter outreach programs, said State Board of Elections spokesman Jim Pettit.

In the meantime, many cities are exploring backup plans. Aberdeen and Bel Air will rely on Harford County election officials for the equipment they'll use in their Nov. 4 elections.

But, County Election Director Rita Dather said, "We don't really know what system we're going to get yet."

But Dather isn't worried. If the state elections board approves the new machines, Dather said, county officials will immediately start training with the Diebold system and then work with municipal election judges.

Otherwise, Dather said, Aberdeen and Bel Air might use the county's decade-old optical scan voting machines.

Other cities have to be more creative. Gaithersburg Assistant City Manager Fred Felton said Montgomery County has already sold its old punch-card machines, so he may borrow old equipment from two other counties without municipal elections for Gaithersburg's Nov. 4 election.

Prince George's County has sold its old machines, too, said Elections Administrator Robin M. Downs. But the three Prince George's cities with upcoming elections — Greenbelt, College Park and New Carrollton — decided it was too costly to transport and program the new machines and won't use them.

Prince George's cities either buy their own voting systems or contract independently, she said.

The town of Hurlock in Dorchester County took a similar course, buying three of the county's old lever voting machines, ample for the Nov. 1 election in this town of 2,000.

The whole issue came about after the 2000 presidential election, when questions about punch-card ballots in Florida spawned lengthy recounts and disputes. That prompted a near nationwide reexamination of state voting systems.

Diebold won Maryland's contract for a uniform statewide voting system, Pettit said. Montgomery, Prince George's, Allegany and Dorchester counties used Diebold machines in last year's gubernatorial election.

Baltimore is the only municipality that will be part of the uniform statewide system, expected to be complete by 2006, Pettit said.

Participating jurisdictions are paying half the expected $55.6 million cost. The state board has already received study results back from SAIC, Pettit said, and is preparing its recommendation.

In the meantime, municipalities are still waiting.

"It's an inconvenience," Gaithersburg's Felton said. But, he added, "We've got two months to deal with this."

Wicomico's Ritter agreed, adding, "Hopefully, next week we'll know what we're doing."