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Maryland: America in Miniature: One voter's report from the trenches

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Message Mary Howe Kiraly
Maryland is known as the Free State; but Maryland has a second slogan that was more prevalent in the past: America in Miniature. This second slogan captures the geography of the state from the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast in the East to the Appalachian foothills in Western Maryland. It has plains, and swamps, farming regions, and the famous Potomac River. The only geographic feature it lacks is a desert, though there is a microclimate in Western Maryland with some of those features. It is a beautiful state in a beautiful country.

Maryland is also a microcosm of something less lovely: what is happening in the country around the election system. No state has more complicated politics around the voting issue. The Washington Post has an article about the Democrats' (the official Party) efforts to prevent (R) Governor Robert Ehrlich from calling a special legislative session to put a paper ballot in place for November, after the meltdown in the Primary Election last week.
At the same time, the Post's Editorial Board has taken the position that the Primary fiasco was attributed to two- and only two- factors: "human error" and the failure to properly train election judges. To quote, "Mr. Ehrlich's imagined connection between the problems experienced on primary day and the integrity of voting machines is simply wrong."

Au contraire. The problems that unfolded over the course of the day involved the technology. Maryland was using Diebold E-Poll Books for voter check in for the first time in the Primary election. The e-poll books tended to be fussy about accepting the smart cards that are programmed by the e-poll books to be the Voter Access Cards, that are inserted in the Diebold AccuVote TS paperless voting machines, to begin the voting process. It could become a jingle but it is nothing to sing about. There were numerous software glitches and problems in the interaction of the two technologies. In addition, software measures (fixes), including memory card encryption, have been added to the voting machines. These fixes- intended to address concerns about vulnerability- slow down retrieval of election results and speed up the shutting down of the voting system mid-vote.

Because, perhaps in an effort to keep suspicious characters from bringing out the toolbox at the voting booth, if the voter does not touch the voting machine for two minutes during the voting process, the machine shuts down. This means, for example, that if you brought a sample ballot to the voting booth with you and you paused to linger over the names of the eighteen candidates running to be the U.S. Senate candidate, your machine shut down. You would then have to return to the Check In Judge, receive a reprogrammed smart card, return to the voting machine, and begin the process over again. This jingle has many verses, doesn't it?

The Primary election day gets even more interesting when we go back now to the opening of the polls. Someone at the Montgomery County Board of Elections forgot to put the smart cards, for the Diebold e-poll books, that become the Voter Access Cards, that are inserted into the Diebold voting machines, to begin the voting process... into the election judges' packets that go to the polling stations. So when the Check In Judges cranked up the e-poll books early on election morning, they had no way to begin the voting process.

Voters who had arrived at the polls early were either turned away in the confusion, or given provisional ballots to complete. To make the process fair to all voters, when a court ordered that Montgomery County polls remain open for an extra hour that night, all the voters who voted in the last hour, were required to vote on provisional ballots. But because so many ballots were used up when the polls open, and over the course of the day (that story follows), some precincts ran out of official provisional ballots for the late arrivals.

The Board of Elections was scrambling all day to meet this situation and had to return to their printer, who could only produce ballots on a short form, that were not scan-able. Those completed unofficial provisional ballots had to be reproduced, during the Provisional Ballot Canvas, so that they could be scanned. Please do not blame the local Board here. They did heroic work during the day, and during the vote canvas, to compensate for the original error. Some voters, in one precinct in Takoma Park, were reported to be writing the names of their choices on scraps of paper, found lying around the polling station, and sealing them in envelopes that were purchased from a drug store when the official and unofficial ballots had all been used.

Most interesting (and here I provide a nugget to the "conspiracy theorists" among us), had that small error at the beginning of the day not occurred, the press and elected officials would have been focused on the technological and system failures in the Diebold E-Poll Books and the Diebold AccuVote TS system. That would have been the huge story that came out of the Maryland Primary. It was not. Instead, the hard-working civil servants at the BoE and the volunteer election judges were blamed for "human error" and insufficient training. Of course, the story is more complicated than that, and has many more layers- because Maryland is America in Miniature.

What I can tell you is that, when the smart cards finally arrived at the polls, they did not work well. One voter in the County required fourteen tries, with fourteen smart cards, to get one to accept the download from the E-Poll Book. A Check In Judge told me that his poll book tended to shut down after programming three smart cards. But, as you now realize from our jingle, the smart card snafu was only the first in the process. Often after requiring several attempts to program a smart card, when one was finally entered into the voting machine to begin the voting process, the voter got a message that said that she had already voted! That voter had to use a Provisional ballot. The voter who got the machine to produce a ballot, but failed to touch the machine for two minutes in the process, and had to try again- but failed- had to vote on a Provisional ballot. The voter whose data did not come up on the statewide registry on the e-poll book had to use a Provisional ballot. So you can see how the polling stations might have run out of Provisional ballots without the incident with the missing smart cards.

The night of the Primary featured strobe lights, media vans, and swarms of reporters, who were quickly directed to the simple explanation for it all: the "little people:" the hard working civil servants and civic minded citizens who work for us, in running an election system that underwrites our democracy. They are, sadly, not quite up to the sophistication of the new technologies. This is the message that the corporate behemoths, who are able to permanently station their representatives in the state capital, and the Democratic Party, for different motives that produce the same result, are able to deliver to the average American voter. It is so much more comforting to focus on the other aspect of America: the mountains and oceans, the great plains and farm lands, the rivers and swamps, the beauty that is all around us until we try to enter the polling booth.
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Mary Howe Kiraly is a voting activist living in Maryland.
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