Maryland court rejects paper requirement for e-voting

ITAA calls decision reality check for e-voting critics

A Maryland county court yesterday rejected a challenge to the use of electronic voting machines that sought to allow voters to opt out of using the technology.

In his decision, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Joseph P. Manck cited the "exorbitant cost" that would be associated with providing paper ballots alongside electronic voting machines, which in Maryland are the Diebold AccuVote-TS systems. Based on testimony of academics and experts on both sides of the issue, Manck concluded that the DRE machines are "much more secure and less vulnerable than the paper ballot." The judge also said he is confident that Maryland officials have "taken all reasonable steps to protect the integrity of the voting process."

The original complaint was filed on May 13 by Linda Schade, co-founder of TrueVoteMD.org. In the complaint, Schade and seven other plaintiffs argued that the Maryland State Board of Elections and its administrator, Linda H. Lamone, improperly certified the Diebold AccuVote-TS electronic voting machines and then "failed to either correct or decertify the machines -- as required by state and federal law -- once it became clear that the machines could neither preserve the security and reliability of the November 2004 election nor create a voter-verified paper audit trail."

Shortly after the 2000 presidential election, the Maryland State Board of Elections set up a procurement review committee to help select an e-voting system vendor. However, after studying the technology, the committee declined to endorse any of the vendors because of security and reliability concerns. The committee then recommended that Maryland not move forward with the purchase of electronic voting machines.

"Despite this recommendation, the State Board of Elections forged ahead and signed a contract with the lowest bidder -- Diebold Election Systems Inc. -- for the purchase of over 4,000 electronic voting machines," states the complaint filed by Schade. "The State Board did so even though Diebold would not be able to produce a voter-verifiable paper audit trail as required by recently enacted state law."

The court's decision comes at a time when state and local elections officials around the country are scrambling to ensure that e-voting systems are reliable and accurate and can be secured from tampering in time for the November election. The systems will be used in jurisdictions representing about 30% of registered voters in the upcoming presidential election.

Critics of the systems, including university and computer security researchers, as well as state officials in California and Ohio, have raised concerns about the security, reliability and ease of use of the systems. Some state and local officials in California and Ohio have even gone so far as to decertify the systems and ban their purchase (see story).

Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America and a staunch defender of e-voting systems, praised the Maryland court decision, saying it "returned the debate to reality."

Maryland "went the extra mile to bring in outside security experts to evaluate and recommend improvements in the voting process," said Miller. "The people of Maryland can feel confident that their votes will count in November."

As additional evidence that electronic voting systems can be used to conduct fair and accurate elections, Miller pointed to the Sept. 1 county elections in Florida, the site of the nation's most intense election controversy in 2000. Electronic voting machines were used in 15 Florida counties, and officials reported only isolated problems with their DRE operations, said Miller.

"This election was an important opportunity to put to rest the unreasonable suspicion directed at these machines in recent months, and we consider it a success," said Miller. "This election stands in stark contrast to the presidential election of 2000."

Schade and TrueVoteMD.org plan to appeal the Maryland court's decision. However, experts and analysts have been warning for the past several months that there is little that can be done between now and the election to change the systems already deployed.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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