ES&S, lawmakers differ on cost of paper receipts

Friday, March 17, 2006

The cost of bringing in new voting machines that issue paper trails for upcoming Maryland elections is more than three times the amount lawmakers approved in the House of Delegates last week, according to an estimate by the company most likely to produce them.

A one-year lease for machines from Nebraska’s Election Systems & Software will cost about $39 million, the company said. However, a bill approved last week in the House that requires the state’s machines to produce paper records for the September primary election estimated the cost at$12 million.

The higher estimate includes about 2,000 machines the state does not necessarily need at a cost of about $9.9 million.

The State Board of Elections last week requested estimates for 2,000 optical scanners and 4,000 AutoMARK machines used by the disabled, a total of two AutoMARK machines per precinct worth about $19.8 million. ES&S told the board that only half the number of AutoMARK machines would be necessary.

A ‘‘reasonable approach” would be 1,900 AutoMARKs and 1,900 optical scanners, said ES&S spokesman Ken Fields, ‘‘4,000 would be not necessary.”

AutoMARK machines are touch-screen devices that mark paper ballots after they are inserted. They provide both headphones for the vision-impaired and a puff tube for those unable to touch the touch pad. To record AutoMARK votes, a paper ballot is inserted into a different machine — an optical scanner — and then counted.

The state has been using touch-screen machines produced by Ohio’s Diebold Election Systems, but those devices have been sharply criticized for questionable security and failure to produce paper records that can be audited.

ES&S and the Board of Elections have not discussed the possible changes in numbers of machines since the company presented its estimate, Fields said.

‘‘We have contacted them to ... make them aware, once again, of our perspective about what quantity of equipment would be appropriate, but we have not heard back from them,” he said. ‘‘We are in the business of meeting the needs of elections officials and they make the determination.”

Linda H. Lamone, state elections administrator, has defended the Diebold touch-screen machines as secure and accurate.

Calls to Lamone and two other Board of Elections officials were not returned.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who is sponsoring the paper trails bill, said she received an e-mail Wednesday informing her of ES&S’s $39 million estimate.

She said there will be another public hearing before the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee before a decision is reached.

‘‘This committee is looking over things and we will do what is best,” said Hollinger (D-Dist. 11) of Pikesville.