Thursday, September 21, 2006

Governor Pushes Paper

Yesterday, Governor Bob Ehrlich suggested Maryland dump its high-tech Diebold electronic voting system before the General Election and instead use old-fashioned paper ballots. "When in doubt, go paper, go low-tech," he said in a Washington Post report. Linda Lamone, the State Board of Elections (SBOE) administrator, denounced the plan as "crazy" and argued that there is simply not enough time to make the change before November 7. Perhaps she's right about the timing, but I'm a firm believer that in politics, where there's a will, there's a way.

Marc Fisher seems to come down on the Governor's side this time. Quoting from his column in today's Post:
What Diebold and the politicians who brought us electronic voting don't get is that elections are an inappropriate forum in which to test new technology. Voting is about trust; the goal is to use the least-complicated technology so it is transparent and accessible to all....

When I asked Lamone if it's possible to revert to paper by November's election, she stared at me: "Are you crazy?" she said.

Crazy or not, if that's what it takes to restore trust, that's what has to happen. People trust paper ballots because they're real. You can hold them in your hand and count them again if you need to. This isn't about resisting change; it's about rejecting change that enriches one company at the expense of public confidence.
Ehrlich has threatened to call the state legislature into special session to authorize the switch to paper, though the Mikes (Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch) are opposed to the plan. It's a smart political move by the governor. He makes the case for revamping an obviously flawed election system that frustrated thousands of voters last week, and is able to spin the Democratic leadership's reluctance as their defense of the increasingly unpopular Diebold system.

Regardless of the political spin, I find myself in agreement with Governor Ehrlich. [Did I just type that?] If it's possible to switch to a paper ballot system in time for the election then the state should do so. Ideally, I think a paper ballot/optical scan system would provide the best of both worlds - a verifiable paper trail with the convenience of electronic vote tallies. Ehrlich, to his credit, supported such a system earlier in the year. It was approved unanimously by the House of Delegates only to later die in the State Senate.

Electronic voting system aside, it should also be noted that many of the problems last week were the result of poor planning and procedures. That needs to be remedied regardless of which voting system we use. The state and county boards need to re-evaluate their election day SOPs, particularly with regard to election material distribution to each precinct, the proper use of provisional ballots, board-precinct communications on election day, poll closing procedures, final vote tallies and so on. Training obviously needs to be improved as well.

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