Election board faces scrutiny in primary

September 08, 1995|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

Tuesday's election in Baltimore will feel more like a trial for the city election board.

Pilloried and embarrassed during the bitter dispute over last year's gubernatorial election, the election office is determined to use Tuesday's vote to clean up its image.

Incompetent election judges have been dismissed, others have been given more thorough instructions, and security procedures have been tightened.

If the pressure of running the first election since last year's disputed gubernatorial balloting isn't enough for city election officials, they will be shadowed on that day by a state task force headed by a former federal prosecutor, taking notes on how to improve the state's election laws.

City election chief Barbara Jackson, who conceded that she was nervous, said she wants to remedy whatever problems turned up during Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's challenge to the narrow victory of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"It was bad going through it, but I learned a lot," Ms. Jackson said this week. "In a way, it's good that it happened."

The election board's changes in the wake of Mrs. Sauerbrey's challenge include:

* A dozen election judges were dismissed for general incompetence. After most elections, only a couple are let go for that reason, Ms. Jackson said. The election office also has increased training time for judges.

* Election judges have been told, and told again, to bring all voting machine keys to the election office after the polls close Tuesday.

In challenging Mr. Glendening's victory, Mrs. Sauerbrey criticized the fact that some two dozen machine keys were given to police last November and others were left in voting machines, leaving open the possibility of fraud.

"We have given explicit instructions to the judges not to give the keys to God himself," Ms. Jackson said.

* For the first time, the board will use pre-printed voter authority cards, which should speed up voting and reduce mistakes in recording which voters cast ballots.

* The board will keep better track of voting machine repairs made on Election Day. A revised form now requires a signature from both a Republican and Democratic judge, to cut down on the possibility of machine tampering.

Marvin L. Cheatham, president of the election board, said the office has not made any "significant" policy changes.

"I would just say we're looking at things a lot closer than ever before," Mr. Cheatham said.

Drake Ferguson, leader of an election-reform group that grew out of the Sauerbrey court challenge, said any changes the board has implemented mean little because the same people are running the office.

But he and other critics said the election office has made some headway.

"I think that those changes are certainly positive," said Matt Iwicki, a Sauerbrey volunteer who has monitored the city election board since the challenge to last year's election.

The board was Mrs. Sauerbrey's chief target after she lost the election to Mr. Glendening by fewer than 6,000 votes.

After a weeklong trial, a judge ruled that Mrs. Sauerbrey had failed to prove the election was stolen.

However, evidence showed that city officials had made some significant mistakes, including failing to purge thousands of voters as the law required at the time.

And, although a report released last month by Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli found no evidence of a conspiracy to steal the election, he did conclude that the election was beset with "error, poor judgment, negligence, outright incompetency, problems in procedures," as well as problems with the election code.

Linda B. Pierson, a Republican and former member of the city election board who now sits on the state election board, said she was encouraged by the changes spurred by the election challenge.

"There's a lot of people who think little mistakes were made here or there," Ms. Pierson said. "We'd like to avoid as many of those as possible."

Among those observing the city election board Tuesday will be a task force appointed by the governor to propose election reforms.

George Beall, a Baltimore attorney who heads the task force, said the 11-member panel will observe board operations downtown before visiting a number of polling places.

"Our task force thought it would be useful to see an actual conduct of an election down in the field, so to speak," said Mr. Beall.

Ms. Jackson, vilified during Mrs. Sauerbrey's court challenge as the "Baltimore Bungler," said she has been suffering through sleepless nights as the election nears.

She and other city officials say their biggest concern lies with the 2,000 judges who oversee the voting process.

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