ANNAPOLIS — An effort by the Maryland State Board of Elections to certify an online balloting tool and possibly head off a federal lawsuit failed Thursday on a technicality in board rules.
The vote, essentially a re-vote from an April meeting, came after board members met in closed session for more than an hour to discuss a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by the National Federation of the Blind seeking to require the state to use the online tool. The failure to certify the online voting tool means the issue now may be headed for a federal courtroom in August.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the board, said Thursday’s outcome would not preclude the board from attempting to certify the system at a future meeting and have it in place by the November general election. She declined to give a deadline for when the system could be implemented and still be ready for November.
“Obviously, earlier is better,” Charlson said. “We’d prefer to have this done by August.”
The tool allows disabled voters and members of the military serving overseas to access a blank ballot through the Internet. The voter electronically marks the ballot and then prints a paper copy that is mailed to the local board.
On Thursday, as in April, opponents of the proposed online tool expressed concerns that the system was not secure and would be subject to fraud.
LuAnn Blake, of the National Federation of the Blind, said that the marking tool has very few security issues associated with it and “is the wave of the future” compared to the use of an absentee ballot.
“The paper absentee ballot is not accessible,” Blake said, adding that blind, visually impaired and the disabled often have to speak their choices to a third party and “trust that they voted as we intended.”
But not all blind and visually impaired voters support use of the online tool. The state also would face litigation if it approved the system.
Andrew S. Han, an attorney with the Washington law firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP, said a coalition of public interest organizations and visually impaired Maryland voters represented by his firm were prepared to file suit in court if the board approved the system.
“It fails to protect the fundamental right to vote,” Han said, adding that the online marking tool was not accessible, not private and “insecure, easily hacked and subject to malware and fraud.”
Charles Crawford, who is blind, told the board that the system was confusing and inaccessible from his computer because of an older Internet browser. He told the board that the tool would restrict the ability of him and others to use the tool.
But board Chairwoman Bobbie S. Mack said her concern was “to see more people have the ability to vote”— something the online tool would provide.
“If we can help five more people vote, I look at that as a plus,” Mack said, but acknowledged that “I don’t think that we have something that will work for members of our community.”
Ultimately, the board voted 3-1 in favor of the tool with Vice Chairman David J. McManus Jr., a Republican member, as the lone dissenting vote. The certification failed because board rules require a supermajority of four votes.
The vote was similar to one taken in April when McManus and Rachel T. McGuckian, a Democratic member of the board, voted against it. McGuckian has since left the board for a position with the Maryland State Ethics Commission and was replaced by Democratic former Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens, who voted for the certification.
Charles E. Thomann, a Republican member of the board, was unable to attend the meeting because he was traveling. It is unlikely his vote would have changed the outcome, as Thomann told reporters after the April meeting that he would have also voted against the online marking tool.