Maryland’s top election official wants to ditch touch-screen machines in favor of paper ballots for early voting before the April primaries because the electronic machines can’t display all candidates on the same screen.
Candidates with last names further down the alphabet — including GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, Democratic Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen, Republican Senate contender Kathy Szeliga and Democratic House candidate David Trone — may be at a disadvantage because of the format, Elections Administrator Linda Lamone said.
In addition, it can be difficult to use the touch screens to navigate between multiple pages of candidates.
“It would cause confusion to voters, and it would take them a lot more time to vote,” Lamone said in an interview.
The State Board of Elections has called an emergency meeting for Thursday to address the problem.
The April 26 primary is the debut of the state’s $28 million shift to hard-copy ballots filled out with pens and put through a scanner, nearly a decade after the legislature demanded a voting system that leaves a paper trail. The switch has been fraught with delays and hiccups that have in turn prompted partisan feuding.
The touch-screen machines, which have special features for the visually or hearing-impaired, will still be available for those voters during the primary. They were also supposed to be used by voters who want to cast their ballots ahead of the primary, between April 14 and 21, at one of the state’s early-voting sites.
Officials wanted to use the touch screens for early voting because voters at each site come from multiple precincts, meaning as many as 50 different ballots need to be available in Prince George’s and Baltimore City for voters casting votes in multiple judicial, city council and congressional races.
But only seven candidates per race can be displayed at once on the machines. And voters attempting to toggle between different pages of candidates in one race can erroneously be sent to races higher on the ballot, Lamone said.
In the 2014 primary, 141,590 people voted early — 21 percent of ballots cast. Turnout is expected to increase this year because of the presidential race.
An executive with the voting machine vendor Election Systems and Software did not immediately return requests for comment.
“The question is, what can you do about it if you see a Page 2 guy you want to vote for” but have already marked the first page of your ballot for a different candidate, said David J. McManus, the Republican chairman of the State Board of Elections.
The issue was brought to the attention of elections officials by Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Cathy Vitale, who is on the ballot.
The alternatives before the board Thursday aren’t easy fixes. Changing the touch-screen machines to show all candidates on a single screen probably would require significant programming that would trigger a lengthy recertification process, McManus said.
And if state officials opt for paper ballots, as Lamone is recommending, election boards would have to scramble to have all the permutations of possible ballots available.
“What’s the trade-off: Are you having voters not able to navigate their ballot quickly and therefore causing long lines? Or do you have voters not able to find their candidates?” Lamone asked.