Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Great Maryland Vote Debacle (My story) -- Things got off to a rocky start in many polling places -- especially throughout Montgomery County, because state election officials forgot to supply the polls with the ATM-like voter access cards that operate the controversial Diebold vote machines. Those plastic voter access cards turned out to be a problem in other ways.

My story: The poll worker found my registration in the database, but got a "card reader error" when she tried to encode the card for my vote. After destroying the faulty card, she tried to program a new card, unsuccesfully, because the database then indicated I had already voted. So, I was directed to vote with a provisional paper ballot. The exact same thing happened to the woman who was next in line behind me.

Even though there was much human error -- the failure to deliver the cards, poll workers' ignorance of the paper ballot option, and the shortages in paper ballots -- there are clearly significant technical issues in the system. I imagine that the glitches in the system prevented many voters from being able to cast their votes electronically -- which, in turn, must have contributed to the shortage of paper ballots. According to the Washington Post, during the final hour when only paper ballots were allowed, voters were writing their choices on any scrap of paper they could find, and poll workers were running out to the store to buy envelopes, since the ballots were required to be placed in sealed envelopes.

Maryland needs to take a very extensive and thorough review of the entire system. There will need to be better back-up to an electronic system that is problematic. For future votes, there must be a sufficient number of paper ballots, at every polling place, to cover all contingencies. In addition, the State will need to be better training of poll workers -- or provide better guides for them to refer to in case of problems.

There will also need to be a review of the hardware and software employed for these elections. The card system needs to be made more reliable...and there needs to be some reprogramming that takes account of problems like the one that forced me to vote by paper ballot. If one attempt to program a card fails, there needs to be a procedure to enable poll workers to keep trying until the voter has been provided with a properly encoded access card -- or, the state needs to abandon this card system in favor of one that isn't so fickle.

As of this writing, there are two notable races that my turn on how many of these scraps of paper end up ebing counted: The Democratic primary race for Comptroller of Maryland, and for U.S. Representative in the 4th District of Maryland. Given the demographic splits that have already appeared in these races, the outcome may turn on how many of the paper ballots are actually counted. Will all the paper ballots be counted, including the ad hoc paper scraps that were substituted for proper ballots? What about votes like mine, where the database suggests I was given an electronic vote, but actually had to fill out a paper ballot.

If all these ballots are counted, Peter Franchot may be the nominee for Comptroller--otherwise it will be Janet Owens. Similarly, Donna Edwards' stunningly strong challenge to incumbent Rep. Al Wynn may turn on how many votes remain to be counted in Montgomery County, which went heavily for Edwards. The court challenges may be myriad.

This was only a primary day -- the turnout is lower than for the general election. And the court battles that we may see in the coming days would pale compared to the intensity of a close general election that effectively required a court to decide the outcome. We could wind up with a close facsimile of the 2000 Florida Presidential vote. Can Maryland step up to the plate to make the necessary improvements and avert a real electoral disaster in November?

No comments: