Voting Security Issues Plague Maryland

No matter who wins today in Maryland, election advocates vow to keep fighting for verifiable, paper receipts.

Andrew Ramsey-Moor

63 percent of Americans will be casting their ballots on electronic voting machines in today's election.

Critics of electronic voting will be watching Maryland closely today to see how Diebold’s electronic voting machines perform. But no matter who wins the elections, and regardless of whether the state’s $106 million touchscreen, paperless voting system performs better today than it did during the problem-plagued September 12 primary, advocates in Maryland of honest, verifiable elections plan to redouble their efforts in 2007 and beyond.

A hotly contested gubernatorial race and the continuing controversy that surrounds State Board of Elections administrator Linda H. Lamone and Diebold Election Systems guarantee that the legislature will revisit the issue of how Maryland runs elections, whether Republican incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wins another term or Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley unseats him. 

Maryland voters who don’t cast absentee ballots will vote on Diebold AccuVote-TS machines. The machines were purchased with funding from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which was passed by Congress as a response to the electoral mess that clouded the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Lamone and many county election boards have continued to back the machines. 

Why, then, is it certain that the electronic voting-system issue will not go away?

In 2003, five Maryland voters who were concerned about the vulnerability of electronic voting systems to hacking formed the grassroots coalition TrueVoteMD​.org. The group has since grown into a network of several thousand Marylanders, gaining support along the way from the ACLU, NAACP, Sierra Club, MD Common Cause, MD NOW, unions, disability groups and numerous partisan political groups.

We’ll continue to pursue legislation requiring paper ballots with audits,” says TrueVoteMD spokeswoman Linda Schade. It’s imperative that we restore transparency, accuracy and integrity to our electoral process, no matter how long it takes.”

That Maryland was not capable of running a smooth election using the Diebold system became painfully obvious in September’s primary, when administrative failures and technical glitches forced tens of thousands of voters to use provisional ballots and resulted in countless others leaving polling places without voting. In populous Montgomery County, numerous polling places could not open on time because the access cards required to run the machines had not been delivered. In Baltimore City and some other jurisdictions, many poll workers simply didn’t show up on time or at all, resulting in many precincts opening more than two hours late.

Meanwhile, the primary also introduced electronic poll books – a separate $16 million Diebold computer system that is supposed to contain data on all registered voters in Maryland. Rushed into service for the primary, these machines and the access cards needed by the poll workers to operate them failed in multiple locations, causing long lines in many jurisdictions. Election judges and workers got scant training in the new system, and thus were ill-equipped to handle the problems that developed. In response, Lamone ordered a mock election” in early October. During a 13-hour test at a major hotel, Diebold attempted to resolve the glitches, but was still working on solutions the day after the faux polls closed. Despite their history of failure, Lamone approved e-poll book use in November. Maryland state auditors later issued a report that faulted Lamone’s office for not properly controlling access to the e-poll books.

Today, Maryland voters will also decide the fate of the e-poll books. Question 4 on the ballot is a referendum on the so-called Voter’s Bill of Rights,” which the Democratic legislature enacted over the governor’s veto this year. The law requires the state to use the e-poll books, and also includes the provisions that make it difficult to remove the state elections administrator. A no” vote on Question 4, which is being advocated by TrueVoteMD, repeals that law, and would throw the issue back to the legislature.

Through the months preceding the primary and since, Lamone has remained a steadfast advocate of the Diebold AccuVote-TS machines and insisted on using them in November without the paper trail that TrueVoteMD and others have insisted upon. The question of how many people are actually voting at their precincts electronically is another matter. Ehrlich turned completely against the Diebold touch-screen system and urged voters to take absentee ballots; many reform-minded Democrats are with the governor on this one. But Ehrlich has been unsuccessful in his efforts to fire Lamone, who came to her position in 1996 when Democrat Parris Glendening was governor and now can be fired only by a supermajority of the five-member State Board of Elections. If voters reject Question 4, the supermajority requirement would be voided.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the legislature will have much to consider when it comes to managing elections. As Maryland was tabulating the tens of thousands of provisional ballots cast because of the machine failures in the primary, researchers at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology released a study that corroborated the suspicions long voiced by Johns Hopkins computer scientist Avi Rubin – whose critique of touchscreen voting spurred the formation of TrueVoteMD. The Princeton researchers privately obtained a Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine and took it apart, studying its hardware and software in the process. They found that the machine is vulnerable to a number of extremely serious attacks that undermine the accuracy and credibility of the vote counts it produces.”

Further security questions were raised in mid-October, when a former legislator who has questioned use of electronic voting systems anonymously received three computer disks containing software created by Diebold Elections Systems. The FBI is investigating the chain of custody” of the disks.

In preparation for today’s election, the state geared up for a record number of absentee ballots; a new law eliminated the requirement that voters provide a reason for voting absentee. Maryland ordered that 1.6 million paper ballots be printed – one for every likely voter. As the deadline for mailed requests passed on Oct. 31, more than 175,000 ballots had been requested. Several jurisdictions ran out of the paper ballots near the end of the month and thus could not fulfill requests until a new shipment was received from Diebold, which is also responsible for printing the paper ballots. A worker at the Howard County Board of Elections reported that absentee ballot requests were running at about four times the rate of past elections.

Georgia and Maryland are the only two states that exclusively use Diebold touchscreen machines with no paper trail. TrueVote activists, for whom a paper record is a bedrock issue, are watching precincts all over the state for problems and/​or irregularities. It is safe to say that Maryland will remain a central battleground in the fight to ensure verifiable elections.

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Andrew Ramsey-Mooris a veteran journalist who has worked for major daily newspapers in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. He has lived in Maryland for the past 13 years and now hangs his hat in Ellicott City, the first stop out of Baltimore on the old B&O rail line.
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