Jeffrey Liss had finished making his selections on Maryland's Democratic-primary ballot and strolled out of the polling place at Chevy Chase Elementary School on the morning of March 2, Super Tuesday. On the sidewalk, he spied a campaign poster for Senator Barbara Mikulski, who is running for her fourth term. Funny, he thought, he didn't remember voting in the Senate race.
Liss went back inside to talk to an election official. And another, and another. He was told he must have overlooked the Senate race on the electronic touch-screen voting machine. But Liss, a lawyer, finally persuaded a technician to check the apparatus. Sure enough, it wasn't displaying the whole ballot.
According to voter complaints collected by Mikulski, who won in the primary, her race didn't appear on ballots in at least three Maryland counties. As a result of snafus like that, a group of voters in the state last week sued to bar use of the machines in November's balloting. And the people of Maryland are not the only ones having second thoughts about electronic voting, the 21st century technology that was supposed to guarantee an end to elections like 2000's, with its outcome depending on subjective calls about hanging and pregnant chads. After that messy conclusion, election officials in 34 states, from Florida to California, purchased so many e-voting machines that some 50 million people, or more than one-third of registered voters, are expected to use them in November. But because of primary-season problems and a general anxiety over sending votes down an electronic black hole, a backlash has set in. Some voter activists, computer scientists and elected officials have joined a growing movement to either make the systems more accountable or pull the plug entirely. Electronic voting is "a rickety system with poor federal and state oversight," says Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. "It has produced an endless stream of bad news." In the most dramatic move against the controversial systems, a state advisory panel urged California secretary of state Kevin Shelley to prohibit the use in this fall's election of 16,000 evoting machines that four counties purchased from Ohio manufacturer Diebold Inc. at a cost of $45 million. Shelley is considering a statewide ban, as is the legislature.
Most critics of e-voting have two complaints. One is that it's not possible to do a true recount with the systems because they produce nothing tangible when a vote is cast; a recount means pressing a button and coming up with the same results. Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the sleek new systems bought by 15 counties--including those of hanging-chad fame like Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade--are unconstitutional because votes can't truly be retallied there, as they can in the rest of the state.