HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — Maryland is going back to basics — an ink pen and paper ballot — for this month's presidential primary. Like every new voting system, this one has some quirks that likely will become more apparent when the November general election brings more than 2 million Maryland voters to the polls.
The system requires most voters to mark their ballots by filling in ovals, similar to those on standardized tests, with pens provided by election judges. Voters feed their marked ballots into scanning machines that tabulate the results.
The new system largely replaces touch-screen terminals, which eliminated the "hanging chads" and other difficulties in discerning voter intent on paper punch-card ballots highlighted by the 2000 presidential election.
Maryland implemented electronic voting in 2002 but glitches and security concerns prompted the General Assembly to vote in 2007 for a return to paper balloting.
The April 26 primary is Maryland's first election using the new equipment, leased from Election System & Software LLC of Omaha, Nebraska, under a six-year, $28 million contract.
Early voting in the primary began April 14 and continues through Thursday. About 600,000 people voted in the last Maryland presidential primary in 2012.
Even in the digital age, nothing safeguards a secret ballot like marking a piece of paper, said State Board of Elections Administrator Linda Lamone.
"The electronic voting, or e-voting, is a long way off, because there is no way to make it secure," she said in a telephone interview.
Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for election accuracy and transparency, said in 2015 that Maryland followed a number of other states in returning to paper ballots.
The group's website currently shows just five states — New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana — without some form of paper ballot system or hard-copy record.
"Paper ballots provide a reliable mechanism for the polling place, insofar as when equipment breaks down, voters can still mark those ballots," she told the AP last year.
But paper balloting isn't trouble-free, and touch screens haven't entirely disappeared from Maryland polling places. They're built into ballot-marking devices designed for voters whose disabilities prevent them from using the pen-and-oval system.
Paper ballots are inferior to electronic voting machines in capturing the intent of voters, said John T. Willis, former Maryland secretary of state and executive in residence at the University of Baltimore's School of Public and International Affairs.
Willis said the new system will likely result in more over-votes — ballots marked for more than one candidate in a race — and more under-votes, which are ballots in which some races are left blank. The old electronic machines wouldn't let you over-vote, and they prompted voters to work through an entire ballot, resulting in fewer under-votes, he said.
Willis, who observed some of the early voting this month, said he saw people trying to insert over-voted ballots into scanners. In those cases, the scanner asks the voter to decide whether to cast the ballot, knowing the over-votes won't count, or start fresh, potentially delaying others from voting, Willis said.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the state elections board, acknowledged that no voting system is perfect.
"You'd be rich if you could come up with that," she said.