Card Snafu Disrupts E-voting in Maryland

Lack of access cards forces thousands of voters to use paper ballots in primary

Some 12,000 voters in a Maryland county were forced to use makeshift provisional ballots when they couldn't gain access to e-voting machines during last week's primary elections.

Election officials said that an apparent human error temporarily left would-be voters in 238 precincts in Montgomery County without the access cards required to operate the e?voting hardware. The county has used touch-screen voting machines from Diebold Election Systems Inc. since 2002.

As a result of the snafu, poll workers were forced to scramble to provide paper ballots to voters. In some locations, those ballots ran out before the access cards were delivered, election officials said.

The error was as simple as it was disruptive. The missing cards, which are about the size of a credit card, are used by voters to gain access to the Diebold AccuVote TSx touch-screen systems, said Marjorie Roher, administrative specialist at the Montgomery County Board of Elections. The card prompts a ballot to appear on the touch screen and allows votes to be cast, she said.

However, the access cards needed for Tuesday's primary election weren't in the sealed election supply bags provided to the precinct election judges, she said.

The cards were located and then rushed to the voting places, but in some cases delivery took up to three and a half hours. To compensate for the delay, the polls were kept open an hour after their scheduled closing times.

The elections board is working to determine why the cards were missing from the bags, Roher said. She called the lack of cards a "regrettable omission" but declined to make further comment until the board's investigation is completed.

"We had 23 counties that had no problem remembering the cards belonged there," said Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Douglas Gansler, the Democratic candidate for Maryland attorney general. "How do you overlook a fundamental component of an e-voting system?"

Morrill said that some precincts had to photocopy provisional ballots because they ran out. Some ballots were handwritten on blank paper or even on campaign signs. Morrill also noted that "many races" in the state are too close to call, so a resolution will have to wait until the provisional ballots are counted.

Assigning Blame

Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan last week publicly called on Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and the Maryland State Board of Elections to fire Montgomery County Board of Elections President Nancy Dacek. He also requested a state investigation into the matter.

Separately, Duncan called on Dacek to terminate county Elections Director Margaret Jurgensen over the incident.

"With the general election less than two months away, we cannot afford to run anything short of a seamless election," Duncan wrote.

Last week's glitches will make voters wary of touch-screen voting, said Maryland state legislator Anne Healey, who called the voting disruption a "major fiasco."

Earlier this year, Healey, who is vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates, had advocated a failed bill that would have prohibited the state from using the TSx systems because of potential problems like those that occurred last week in Montgomery County. "It certainly undermines the confidence in the whole system," said Healey. She also noted that some machines in Prince George's County were inoperable during the primary because the election judges lacked the proper passwords. Officials at the Prince George's County Board of Elections could not be reached for comment on those problems.

This situation underscores the fact that touch-screen voting is complex and prone to these sorts of errors, according to Ion Sancho, elections supervisor for Leon County, Fla. "The whole effort to reform our election problems [with touch-screen machines] really is a disaster," said Sancho, a critic of touch-screen systems.

Diebold spokesman David Bear noted that the Montgomery County problems were not technical. "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.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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