Returns are in on Md.'s election IT

Attendees at FOSE 2003 visited the E-Town pavilion to hear talks on topics such as progress in implementing electronic voting.

Henrik G. DeGyor

This month at E-Town, the FOSE 2003 trade show's virtual Main Street for e-government services, two Maryland counties described how they switched from lever-style and punch-card voting to direct-record electronic devices.

Brian Biggins, election system project manager for the Montgomery County Technology Services Department, said the county switched from punch-card ballots to a touch-screen system'partly in response to the November 2000 election debacle in Florida, and partly to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

The legislation requires states to replace punch cards and lever machines with electronic voting equipment by November 2004, although extensions are possible.

Maryland is implementing a direct-record electronic system from Diebold Election Systems, a division of Diebold Inc. of North Canton, Ohio. Four counties'Montgomery, Prince George's, Allegheny and Dorchester'tried the new equipment in last November's election.

The touch screens eased voting for disabled people, said Hugh Alexander, election system coordinator in Prince George's County's Office of Information Technology and Communications. It also made multiple-language ballots easier, but there were still some problems.

Spanish lessons

The county's Spanish-speaking population comes from many different countries, each of which has its own dialect. 'Coming up with a Spanish translation that was acceptable to each group was a challenge,' Alexander said.

In Prince George's County, nine technicians had maintained the old lever-style machines, Alexander said. They were skilled with screwdrivers but not necessarily computers. 'I'm proud that we were able to hold onto seven of these people,' he said. 'They know how to support voting technology.'

Montgomery County, however, lost 30 percent of its election judges after the change, Biggins said, because they told the county that helping voters use the computers added too much stress to the one-day job.

The average age of a Montgomery County election judge is 72; in Prince George's County, it's 68. The new machines are heavy, so the judges needed help setting them up, which meant extra staff.

'A 72-year-old judge might not know about computers,' Alexander said. 'But she knows how to run a polling place. So you have to give her support where she needs it.'

Alexander discovered that the LCD screens of the Diebold equipment had to be carefully placed away from window glare that made them hard to read, Alexander said.

Know your jacks

Prince George's County had a problem with telephone jacks, which were installed just four inches from classroom ceilings so that students couldn't damage the pins. 'So we had to bring in extension cords for each jack we needed to reach,' Alexander said.

Both election officials agreed on three recommendations to comply with HAVA:
  • Manage expectations. People think because something is computerized, it will give immediate results. 'But accuracy is what counts in an election, not speed,' Alexander said.

  • Use all the project management skills available.

  • Do everything possible to raise public awareness. 'You don't want people finding out there's a new voting system on election day,' Biggins said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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