State Hits Pause on Controversial Wireless Network to Transmit Voter Information

Maryland elections officials announced Friday that they will not require the state’s six largest jurisdictions to use a controversial wireless network to transmit voter information to the state during this year’s elections, after the software appeared to malfunction while Tuesday’s special congressional primaries were taking place.

The state’s insistence that Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties use the wireless network had already met with resistance from local officials, who did not like the system or the expense associated with implementing it.

The state elections office wanted to install the secure networks at 1,300 polling places to transmit real-time voter registration changes from electronic pollbooks to the state office in Annapolis during voting. State elections administrative officials argued that the network was needed to handle a potential increase in the volume of transactions with the state’s shift to same-day voter registration.

But when the network caused a significant slowdown in transmitting information during Tuesday’s special congressional primary in the city and Baltimore and Howard counties, elections officials decided to put the full implementation on pause.

Officials and good government advocates had expressed fears that the flaws revealed on Tuesday, in an election with low voter turnout, could be magnified in the regular April 28 primaries and during the general election.

In a statement, Nikki Charlson, the deputy director at the Maryland State Board of Elections, said the decision not to require the six jurisdictions to use the system was made “to give voters full confidence that their voting experience will be safe, timely and secure.”

“For Tuesday’s special primary election for the 7th Congressional District, a network was used to connect electronic pollbooks to SBE’s server. While the vast majority of voters voted without issue over 13 hours, a small number of voters encountered delays due to the implementation of this system,” the statement said.

“Our electronic pollbooks are not connected to the voting system and do not impact election results, yet we are not satisfied when any voter encounters an unnecessary delay. As such, the local boards of elections will not be required to implement this system in the 2020 Primary or General Elections.”
State elections officials did not discount the possibility of requiring local boards to use the system in subsequent elections, and said local elections boards had the option of trying to implement the system in 2020. But that’s not likely to happen.
The state board’s decision came one day after the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee heard testimony on an emergency bill from Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) that would remove the need for the wireless networks.
At the hearing, Kagan suggested the problems elections officials encountered with the system Tuesday would have gotten more attention if the results of the Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa hadn’t been botched on Monday night.
“That has somewhat overshadowed the problems we have here in Maryland,” she said.
At the hearing, many senators seemed sympathetic to Kagan’s legislation — and she expressed outrage that no one from the State Board of Elections showed up to defend the network.
“I am shocked that not one representative of the state board is here after the debacle of Tuesday,” she said.
Jared DeMarinis, director of the SBE’s Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division, was testifying on multiple campaign finance bills before the House Ways and Means Committee during Thursday’s Senate hearing.
In a statement following the state board’s announcement Friday afternoon, Kagan said she was “relieved” to hear the system has been temporarily shelved.
“One of the most consequential presidential elections in history is not the time to experiment with wireless devices statewide,” she said.
 

 

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.