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Democrats Blast Ehrlich's Absentee-Voting Initiative

Governor May Attempt to Ban Electronic Voting

 

By Christian Davenport

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, September 22, 2006; B01

 

Faced with intense opposition to his proposal to switch from electronic voting machines to paper ballots, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday urged voters to stay away from polling places during the November general election and instead cast paper absentee ballots.

 

Ehrlich's suggestions -- which he made through a senior administration official -- came after last week's primary, when voters experienced widespread problems at the polls.

 

"It's the most rational solution to the primary election dysfunction," said Joseph M. Getty, Ehrlich's policy director.

 

The plan was denounced by some Democrats who said it was another attempt by the governor, who is up for reelection, to boost his candidacy by suppressing voter turnout and sowing doubts about the state's electronic voting system.

 

And they said it was highly hypocritical, given that Ehrlich vetoed a bill last year that would allow voters to cast absentee ballots without giving a reason for doing so, saying it was "an invitation for greater voter fraud in the state."

 

The veto was overridden by the Democrat-controlled legislature.

 

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 2 to 1, Ehrlich's critics said that the lower the turnout on Election Day, the better Ehrlich's chances are of defeating his Democratic opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

 

"Fear-mongering and scare tactics are longstanding strategies to keep voters away from the polls," said Derek Walker, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

 

O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney added, "Bob Ehrlich is simply trying to frighten voters away from the polls."

 

Getty denied that politics was behind the announcement. The governor has long believed electronic voting systems are susceptible to fraud and malfunction, he said, and Ehrlich believes the state should scrap its $106 million electronic voting apparatus.

 

On Wednesday, Ehrlich said he was mulling whether to call a special session to push for a law requiring paper ballots and banning electronic voting. Getty said yesterday that option was still on the table.

 

But that idea was rebuffed harshly Wednesday by leaders of the General Assembly and Linda H. Lamone, the administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections. Getty said the governor decided yesterday that the next best solution would be to promote the use of absentee paper ballots. Those ballots would give voters a renewed sense of confidence in the voting system after a bumpy primary marred by human errors and technical glitches, he said.

 

Both Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said Wednesday that a special session would be pointless and that, with only seven weeks to go before the general election, the state should focus on fixing the current system.

 

There were a mix of problems that touched off chaotic scenes at some polling places during the Sept. 12 primary. Some of the state's newly acquired electronic poll books, which were used to check in voters, crashed repeatedly. And there were problems synchronizing the machines, which meant that theoretically a voter could check in more than once and cast multiple ballots.

 

Elections officials said they found no evidence of fraud.

 

Lamone and Diebold Election System officials have pledged to fix the problems in time for the November election. And Lamone said the electronic voting system is the most safe and accurate available. By contrast, absentee ballots are more susceptible to voter fraud and coercion, she said, and the paper presents problems for blind and visually impaired voters who can cast ballots independently on the touch-screen machines.

 

"Election administrators throughout the state of Maryland have complete faith in this touch-screen system ," she said. "We have faith in this voting system."

 

Lamone also said yesterday that she disagreed with a draft audit prepared by the Department of Legislative Services -- reported yesterday by the Baltimore Sun -- that found that the state didn't properly review "local board of elections' compliance with applicable election laws and regulations."

 

She was reluctant to talk about the confidential draft report before issuing her formal response. But she said the state does "a whole lot of things to make sure the local boards are in compliance with state law. We are in fact proactively working with the counties."

 

Democrats also denounced Ehrlich for vetoing a bill this year that would have allowed early voting in the state, saying the governor was simply trying to keep voters away from the polls. That veto was also overridden, but the law was struck down by the Maryland Court of Appeals last month, 11 days before early voting was to take place.

 

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has long believed electronic voting systems are susceptible to fraud, his top policy adviser said.Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has long believed electronic voting systems are susceptible to fraud, his top policy adviser said.

 

Photo Credit: The Washington Post

 

Washington Post staff writers Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner contributed to this report.

 

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