Baltimore election returns still not complete

September 13, 1990|By Ginger Thompson Ann Lolordo of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article

More than 24 hours after the polls closed in Tuesday's primary election, the Baltimore Board of Elections was still unable to provide complete unofficial returns that other counties in the metropolitan area had ready a few hours after the voting ended.

"They short-changed the voters of Baltimore, who deserved to know the unofficial results on election night," said Gene M. Raynor, the state administrator of election laws.

The city elections board, apparently understaffed and unprepared, was conducting its first citywide vote

count in over a century. Previously, unofficial results of Baltimore elections had been counted by the police department and released to the public at the War Memorial across from City Hall.

But by 2 a.m. yesterday, officials at the city Board of Elections -- equipped with a new computer system that they had hoped would provide the most up-to-date and accurate results in years -- closed their offices with only 90 percent of the precinct votes tallied.

And before the office closed at 4 p.m. yesterday, the city still was unable to provide copies of the election results by legislative district, and the outcome of many contests remained in doubt.

Barbara E. Jackson, administrator of the Baltimore election board, said that because of communication problems with her computer staff,the most she could provide were lists of how each of the city's 437 precincts voted.

"The board of elections made a valiant effort, but it was not good enough," Mr. Raynor said. "Their performance was inadequate. They needed more people."

Ms. Jackson agreed that her staff was unprepared for the campaign workers, candidates and reporters who crowded into the lobby of the board's offices seeking election results. But she said she was satisfied with the performance of her staff.

"Considering this was the first time we ever did it, I'm very pleased," said Ms. Jackson. "Of course there are some things that need to be worked out before the general election."

She said that her staff was unable to provide final results on election night because several tally sheets had not been accurately filled out by election judges.

"We have 2,400 judges to train, and it's just hard to get perfection from 2,400 people," she said. "This happens every year. There are always a few sheets that are not legible or that have not been filled out properly.

"We just felt that instead of giving out some off-the-wall numbers, it was best to give the numbers we had and wait to confirm the rest."

As time passes, Ms. Jackson said, she hopes to be better prepared for the unofficial count and the dissemination of race results.

On primary election night, two operators sat in front of a computer that was connected to a projector screen and took requests from the audience on which results to display. The shouts from the crowd -- which included candidates, campaign workers and the news media -- often created such chaos that the work of computer operators in the back offices who were updating results was interrupted.

"We weren't planning on having the candidates and the press in our office," said Ms. Jackson. "We had to do that at the last minute."

The total turnout in the city was the fourth-highest in the state, behind Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties. Elections officials in those three counties, as well as in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, had complete unofficial returns available to the public, press and candidates before midnight on Tuesday.

In Baltimore, it was the first time in memory that complete unofficial election results were not available before midnight, said Dennis S. Hill, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department.

Since the 1860s -- amid concern that election officials might slip in a few hundred extra votes for their favorite candidate -- the police department has handled the unofficial counting of votes in city elections.

The board took over the election count this year, confident its new computer system could handle the job. The Police Department had been asking to be relieved of the responsibility for several years.

In the 20 years that Mr. Hill was involved in the count by the police department, he remembers having illegible tally sheets. But instead of holding up the count until the numbers could be confirmed, he said, "We just did the best we could to read them."

He added, "We always advertised that ours was an unofficial count, and we were always as accurate as we could be. But, [the board of elections] orientation is to take several days to count votes, and ours was to count them in one night."

Ms. Jackson said she did not want to take any chances on inaccuracies.

"I take the count very seriously," she said. "I'd hate to give some numbers one night and then turn around and give completely different numbers later because those numbers may turn out to be terribly wrong."

Ms. Jackson, who has worked on the city Board of Elections for 24 years, said she remembers one such error by the Police Department in the 1982 Democratic primary race for register of wills. On election night, incumbent Patrick J. Duffy was declared a winner by 15,000 votes over his top challenger, Mary W. Conaway, a school teacher. A week later, after the official count was conducted by the Board of Elections, Mrs. Conaway was declared the winner by 9,000 votes.

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