Maryland county struggles with e-voting 'fiasco'

Access cards were not provided for Tuesday's primary; voters turned away

Elections workers in what is one of Maryland's largest and most prosperous counties this week gave opponents of touch-screen voting systems more ammunition when an e-voting "fiasco" prevented an unknown number of voters from casting ballots. The problem, however, wasn't so much with the machines themselves; it was caused by a human error.

On Tuesday, a procedural error temporarily left would-be primary voters in 238 precincts in Montgomery County without the ballot cards required to operate the e-voting hardware, according to elections officials. The machines used by the state are from Diebold Elections Systems Inc.

As a result of the snafu, poll workers were left scrambling to provide enough paper-based provisional ballots to voters. And in some cases, even those ran out.

With the nation headed toward what is expected to be a hotly contested congressional election involving seats in a number of states where e-voting systems will be used, any potential for technical or procedural breakdowns gives e-voting critics cause for concern.

The error was as simple as it was disruptive. The voter access cards, which are about the size of a credit card, are given to voters, who insert them into a Diebold AccuVote TSx touch-screen system. The ballot then appears on screen, allowing votes to be cast. However, the access cards needed for Tuesday's primary weren't in the sealed election-supply bags provided to the precinct election judges who oversee voting.

Without the cards, voters had to use provisional paper ballots, although not every polling place provided them. Although every precinct in the county was affected, a few located near the state's election headquarters got cards by 7 a.m., when voting was supposed to start. Other precincts didn't receive them for up to three and a half hours, forcing some voters to be turned away from the polls. Others simply gave up waiting. To compensate for the delayed voting, a judge ordered the polls to stay open an extra hour Tuesday night.

The exact cause of the missing cards, which were prepared by the county elections staff, is being looked into, said Marjorie Roher, administrative specialist at the Montgomery County Board of Elections. It was a "regrettable omission," she said, noting that she could not comment further until the investigation was complete.

Candidates weren't happy about the glitch. Mike Morrill, spokesman for Douglas Gansler -- the Democratic candidate for Maryland attorney general -- said that the elections board oversight was incredible. "We had 23 counties who had no problem remembering the cards belonged there," said Morrill. "How do you overlook a fundamental component of an e-voting system? In effect, what they did was like building a car without a steering wheel."

In some precincts, provisional ballots ran out and had to be photocopied. Some ballots were handwritten on blank paper or even on campaign signs. Morrill noted that some of the close races will depend on those provisional ballots, meaning winners will not be known for days. "It's more than hundreds; it's in the thousands, and many races are too close to call until the provisional ballots are determined acceptable and read," he said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan went so far this week as to publicly call for County Elections Director Margaret Jurgensen to be fired. He also released a letter yesterday to Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and the state Board of Elections chairman asking that Montgomery County Board of Elections President Nancy Dacek be removed. He also requested an investigation.

In a separate letter to Dacek, Duncan called for Jurgensen's termination as well as an investigation into the problems. "With the general election less than two months away, we cannot afford to run anything short of a seamless election," Duncan wrote.

This week's glitches will make voters yet even more wary of touch-screen voting, said Maryland delegate Anne Healey, who called the voting disruption a "major fiasco." Earlier this year, Healey, who is vice chairwoman of the state House Ways and Means Committee, had advocated a failed bill that would have prohibited the state from using the TSx systems because of precisely the kinds of problems that affected Montgomery County.

"It certainly undermines the confidence in the whole system," said Healey. "It does make you kind of nervous. It's a serious problem, and we need to address it."

Her district is in Prince George's County, where some polling places were unable to operate their machines because the election judges lacked the proper passwords. "I don't think we're at a comfortable level," Healey said.

Officials at the Prince George's County Board of Elections could not be reached for comment.

This situation underscores the fact that touch-screen voting is complex and is prone to these sorts of errors, according to Ion Sancho, elections supervisor of Leon County, Fla., and one of the highest-profile critics of the systems in the U.S. "The whole effort to reform our election problems [with touch-screen machines] really is a disaster," he said. Montgomery County demonstrated that running an e-voting system is too complicated for polling staffers, who are only temporary workers who participate in an election every two years, he said.

"It's not like we have a pool of trained professionals we keep on board," Sancho said.

Diebold spokesman David Bear emphasized that this week's problems weren't technical in nature. "This same human error, failure to provide all the necessary election-day supplies, would have been an election day issue regardless of the type of voting system," he said.

Roher said she expects election certification to be completed around Sept. 25, but she acknowledged that counting the 12,000 or so provisional ballots could force that deadline to be extended by another couple of days.

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