The city's voting blunders

January 18, 1995

It is time to overhaul this state's election procedures, and the first place to begin the reforms is in Baltimore City. As Republican Ellen Sauerbrey made painfully clear in her unsuccessful court challenge to the November election results for governor, city election officials badly fumbled the ball.

They bungled a number of technical jobs: It was too burdensome to purge the rolls of people who hadn't voted in five years. There was inadequate planning for ensuring the security of voting machines after the balloting. Absentee ballots weren't handled in accordance with state guidelines.

Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Raymond Thieme hit it on the nose when he concluded, in rejecting Mrs. Sauerbrey's court suit last week, that the situation in the city "must be immediately addressed if the citizens of this state are to have confidence in the electoral process."

The State Administrative Board of Election Laws said much the same thing. It wants an independent study of election procedures statewide -- starting in the city so changes can be made before the city's next election in September.

There's good reason to look at this as a statewide problem. Every jurisdiction had its share of goofs. Many counties mishandled absentee ballots. Most election judges ignored the need to check voter identification. Keeping track of changes of address proved woefully inadequate everywhere.

But Mrs. Sauerbrey zeroed in on the city's problems. Indeed, actions -- or rather inactions -- by city election officials leave troubling questions. And yet there are reasons for the procedural breakdowns in the city. Baltimore contains roughly one-quarter of all polling places in Maryland. It has the largest number of old-fashioned voting machines, which are subject to breakdowns. It also has a serious problem finding enough Republican voters to serve as election-day judges due to the dearth of registered Republicans within the city.

A shake-up of the city election's office may be in order. But the main need is for a commitment from Gov.-elect Parris Glendening and the legislature to reform. Giving more power to the state elections board is paramount. The state board should have the clout to set up better training programs and enforce its mandates on voting and vote-counting procedures. Computerizing state voting also should be considered.

The number of contested votes last November was minuscule when you consider that 1.4 million ballots were cast. And most of them were technical foul-ups. But now that weaknesses have been exposed, corrections can be made. The integrity and accuracy of future elections should not be called into doubt.

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