Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page B08


Getting elections right is Job No. 1 in a democracy. Maryland's new touch-screen system fails that test. The state is using machines that officials know will fail, and the burden is on the voter to correct those failures.


Last Tuesday I went to the polls early to vote in the Democratic primary. The good news is that, unlike in 2002 when malfunctioning machines created delays so long that many voters simply bailed out, there were no lines. The bad news is that the touch-screen voting machines don't always work.


During the voting process I scrolled through the five screens on the ballot, ticked my choices and pressed the fateful "cast my vote" box. As I walked out I saw a campaign sign for Barbara Mikulski and said to myself, "Hey, I didn't vote in the Senate race. In fact, I never saw that race on the screen." I went back in and raised this with several election judges and officials. All but one looked at me as if I were crazy and, in gentle terms, noted that I must have missed the race on the screen.


This was certainly possible, and it would have raised a different problem, namely that people have differing abilities to distinguish portions of a visual field -- a disadvantage of paperless, touch-screen voting. But that was not Tuesday's problem. I persevered long enough to persuade the technician on duty to check my machine. The technician confirmed that the machine was not presenting whole election contests.


At this point I demanded to vote again. But the senior election judge on site said, "Once you've pressed 'cast my vote,' that's it. You can't vote again." I pointed out that I had been denied the right to vote because I was never presented with the ballot for that race, and she said, "Well, you should have complained before you pressed the button." In other words, it's up to the voter to account for all the races and to make sure the machine doesn't malfunction.


I fussed enough that an official called the administrator of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. I reviewed the facts with her, and she said, "Once you've pressed 'cast my vote,' that's it. You can't vote again." (It must be a script.) I repeated my argument that I had not voted because the county had not presented me with a valid, complete ballot. The administrator put me on hold, spoke to somebody, and, lo and behold, I was told that I could fill out a "provisional" paper ballot and that the board of elections would decide within 10 days whether to count it. So, after investing an hour and a half at the polls, I came away with the satisfaction that maybe my ballot would be counted, and maybe it wouldn't.


The most amazing thing about this experience was something the administrator said to me. When I explained that a race had been dropped, she asked whether I had pressed the magnification button. I said that I had not even seen and fortunately did not need a magnification button. She said, "The reason I ask is that we know that this sometimes happens when you press the magnification button." So the election officials know that the machine will malfunction.


Now, in a larger sense, that's not exactly headline news. Computers and computer screens malfunction -- it happens to all of us at home and at work on a regular basis. But then why would we entrust our elections to patently flawed machinery with no paper backup?


To Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and all of our county executives: Get in a room and fix this problem. The stakes are too high to fail anymore.


-- Jeffrey F. Liss

is a lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase.


2004 The Washington Post Company


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