Maryland lawmakers question Diebold voting

Maryland Democratic lawmakers have called for additional examination of touch screen voting machines that the state is purchasing for use starting with the March 2004 presidential primaries.

Earlier examinations suggested that the machines, made by Diebold Election Systems Inc., could be vulnerable to fraud or error, but Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich authorized their purchase after consultant Science Applications International Corp. said most of the risks could be lessened.

Sen. Paula Hollinger and Delegate Sheila Ellis Hixson, both Democrats, have written to the nonpartisan Maryland Department of Legislative Services to ask that it examine the September report on the machines that SAIC performed for the state.

The controversy over touch screen machines, which Diebold and two other companies sell nationwide, is growing. The machines do not generate a paper record of voters' choices that voters can verify, and which could be used in a recount if one were needed. Legislation now being considered by the House would require companies to add a voter-verifiable paper record to their machines, but the bill is languishing.

Maryland officials earlier put the brakes on their plan to spend $55.6 million on the machines after computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University analyzed Diebold source code that had been posted on a public Web site and found numerous security holes. The state commissioned SAIC to review the report, and the company issued a heavily redacted report that confirmed the existence of serious security flaws, but said many of them could be minimized with a few changes to the system and Maryland's use of specific measures at polling places. State officials decided to go ahead with the purchase.

Hollinger said the state legislature has not been involved in the process so far. "Now we're in a situation where we have a primary coming up in March and we have a system contracted for [use] that has come under scrutiny," she said. "There are problems that have been pointed out. Before we have a debacle in the state, we do have a nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, and we've asked them to review the whole process and get back to us before our January [2004] session."

Exactly what the review might change isn't clear. Hollinger said the state legislature was moving toward implementing electronic voting even before the 2000 presidential election, in which voter confusion and poorly designed ballots in Florida led to a disputed outcome in a close race. But the findings at Johns Hopkins and SAIC have raised concerns.

"We've got so many conflicting things going on here. Let's make it right before we have a problem," she said.

SAIC has had a standing contract with Maryland for information technology consulting, leading some critics of the touch screen machines to question the company's impartiality.

"I think that they were trying to make the governor of Maryland happy," said David Dill, a professor at Stanford University.

"I imagine that the recommendations are good, but [SAIC] assumed [Maryland] had to buy the machines," he added. "It's about how to mitigate the risk. The report never said that after they mitigate the risk it would be acceptable risk. They never considered the option of buying different machines."

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