Gang that couldn't count straight Howard County: Harmless error could have been a disaster for Board of Elections.

November 12, 1996

BOARD OF ELECTIONS officials in Howard County made a big mistake a week ago. They should consider themselves lucky that a potential disaster ended up being a virtually harmless embarrassment.

For two days after the election, the board reported that three questions to change the county charter lost in a landslide. In fact, they had won big. The public learned three days after the election that voters actually agreed the county should change phrasing in the charter from "Appeals Board" to "Board of Appeals" -- not an issue likely to elicit hot debate.

Director of Elections Barbara Feaga explained that a board staff member thrice typed "against" instead of "for" in the wrong places on a computer program, transposing the results. Luckily, the mistake did not involve the name of a judicial or school board candidate, making a flesh-and-blood winner appear as a loser.

Imagine the anger that could have resulted in that instance. In Baltimore two years ago, elections administrator Barbara Jackson came under fire for blunders by her office in the gubernatorial election. Ironically, the critics who last time lambasted the city as a bastion of political patronage and incompetence were silent when this error turned up in the county.

Howard officials were fortunate that its blunder came in reporting the results of innocuous charter amendment questions. The oversight should not be taken lightly, though. Elections officials should have caught the errors, especially when the outcome of those three issues were so far out of kilter with the public's support of most charter issues. Voters who preferred Cable 15's local coverage over that of the networks or CNN last Tuesday must have been baffled as the bizzare returns flashed on the screen. Someone at the elections board should have questioned why voters would oppose a simple language change but approve other innocuous amendments and a measure that alters the process of redrawing councilmanic districts every 10 years.

When votes are reported, the public expects perfection, even at a hectic time. When the elections office makes such an error in the glare of the spotlight, it undercuts confidence in the critical, if low-key, work it performs in the weeks and months leading to Election Day.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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