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Election paper trail bill on House agenda

January 13, 2007 - The Capital - Annapolis, By JEFF HORSEMAN, Staff Writer

With more than a year before voters choose the next president, a state delegate yesterday introduced a bill that would track votes with a paper trail to ensure the accuracy of future elections.

But the paper receipt system could cost $50 million, and the county elections chief said it isn't necessary.

"I don't see a need for it," Barbara Fisher said. "I have confidence in the system we have."

The integrity and accuracy of state elections has been an issue ever since the state switched to touch-screen voting machines several years ago. Critics say the machines are susceptible to fraud and that a paper trail provides an extra layer of protection to the electoral process.

The bill sponsored by Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, would require paper voting records for the Diebold electronic voting machines or a switch to optical-scan ballots where voters mark their choices with a heavy pen.

The legislation is identical to a bill that passed the House last year, but died in the Senate. Ms. Hixson said she wanted to introduce this year's bill early so it wouldn't suffer the same fate.

"We're not going to let anything happen this time," she said.

Ms. Hixson said her bill will likely be tweaked, but that glitches in last year's primary elections, and some narrow contests in November, mean lawmakers won't delay another year on a paper trail.

The bill was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee, which Ms. Hixson chairs. Because of that, the bill will likely make it to the House floor.

Paper voting records were supported last year by both Democrats and Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But the change didn't become law in part because of concern there wouldn't be time to change the voting machines before last fall's elections. The next statewide election is in 2008.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, said a paper trail is an important issue for many lawmakers.

"Obviously everyone is trying to find a way to find a verifiable paper trail," he said. "It's an issue that everyone wants resolved ... The question is whether we can come to an agreement."

Another obstacle to paper records has been cost. Last year's bill was estimated to cost $50 million, with the expenses split between the state and local governments.

While she's confident in the current election system, Ms. Fisher said she's ready to do whatever the state requires.

But she said paper ballots would present logistical challenges even if they're approved by the end of the assembly in April. Equipment and supplies must be bought and elections workers must be trained with the new system, she said.

If lawmakers want a paper trail, "They need to do it quickly," she added.

"The earlier you can come up with an agreement ... the easier it is to go out and have a procurement process," Mr. Busch said.

Joyce Thomann, an Annapolis resident and a longtime critic of the Diebold machines, prefers a return to the old system, where voters marked their choices and fed them into an optical scanner. She said the scanners are cheaper and more user-friendly.

"We need to look at taxpayer dollars," said Mrs. Thomann, a longtime election judge. "It's not an infinite source."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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