New Machines in the Old Line State: Long-Awaited Maryland Upgrades Draw Criticism

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Even as other states look to find funding to upgrade their voting technology, Maryland is preparing (after a decade!) to transition to new machines in time for next year’s presidential election – but like most changes, it isn’t coming without some concern or controversy. The Washington Post has more:

Voters in Maryland will be casting their votes with black pens and paper ballots in the coming presidential primaries, nearly a decade after lawmakers decided to get rid of touch-screen machines that leave no paper trail.

The search for new equipment was mired in delays and setbacks before the state finally approved a $28 million contract last December. And even with the new ballots and scanners in hand, Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has raised questions in recent weeks about whether the state is headed for disaster in its rush to get them up and running.

IT officials and election officials disagree about whether problems that have emerged during testing are severe enough to merit implementation delays:

Maryland’s Department of Information Technology last month urged delaying the implementation of the new voting machines because of dozens of hardware and software issues that were being revealed in testing. Elections administrator Linda ­Lamone, who operates independently of the governor’s office, insisted that the project move forward and said any problems could be resolved.

 In the past month, the number of unresolved problems with the new voting machines has shrunk from 87 to 24, none of them high risk, according to internal ­project-tracking reports provided to The Washington Post. In addition to the new machines, election officials are rolling out same-day voting registration and changing the process for early voting.

Gov. Hogan himself has raised questions about the machines’ impact on the upcoming election, but his Democratic opponents aren’t buying:

“My concern is that the entire election collapses,” Hogan said at the Dec. 2 meeting of the Board of Public Works. “We should be talking about the integrity of the vote in Maryland.”

Such criticism brings a return volley from state Democrats, who say Hogan’s office should intervene with the Board of Elections if he has such grave concerns.

“He’s essentially criticizing the new machines but also saying the old machines are not to his liking,” said Patrick Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. “This isn’t ­‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ where he gets to look for a third set of porridge.”

The issue, it seems, involves the machines’ failure to count votes in a recent county test – an issue that the local election official says would not have been fatal:

During an October mock election to test the new system, 3,000 votes weren’t counted in Howard County — a major red flag to the Department of Information Technology, which also said the mock election wasn’t a complete test.

State elections officials suspect the scanner didn’t count the votes because a security measure blocked it from using a memory card that was plugged into another computer. Had this happened on Election Day, officials say, the paper ballots could have been re-scanned on another machine in a matter of hours.

“They were never lost. They were always there,” said Guy Mickley, Howard’s election director.

Supporters of the new system – many of whom urged the state to abandon touchscreens years ago – say that the existence of paper ballots makes such problems less of a concern. And state election officials insist that the rollout is on track:

Nikki Charlson, Maryland’s deputy election administrator, said the state needs additional software to process address changes for early voters, and expects to receive it this month.

Charlson said Election Systems & Software has provided an additional technician to troubleshoot problems and assigned one of its executives to focus exclusively on Maryland. It has also started providing weekly status reports.

“The system is performing as expected,” Charlson said. “We don’t believe that there’s any issue with the equipment that we have seen that would call into question its ability to run in the primary.”

As I’ve discussed time and again, change of any kind in election administration is a challenge – and never more than in a presidential election year. Still, despite the controversy, many states would likely happily change places with the Old Line State and work through implementation issues associated with new voting equipment. All in all, it makes Maryland’s 2016 election just a little more interesting.

Stay tuned.

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