Machines slow tally of voting results Human error to blame, say elections officials

Primary 1998

September 16, 1998|By Larry Carson and Gerard Shields | Larry Carson and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Melody Simmons and Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

Human error delayed election returns in Baltimore and Baltimore County last night, frustrating elections officials and politicians whose careers hinged on the results.

Baltimore County officials said some elections judges jammed voting machines with improperly prepared ballots.

And the city's $6.5 million computer voting system, used for the first time, also suffered from human error, with only half the results being reported at Board of Elections Supervisors headquarters by 11 p.m.

Baltimore elections officials had predicted having all returns in by 10 p.m., but confusion over picking up computer cartridges with votes from each precinct caused delays.

City Council President Lawrence Bell, who was watching returns come in with about two dozen people at the Board of Elections office, said the elections board's performance was worse than in 1994, when the board was sharply criticized for its slow results.

"It seems worse. A lot of people have victory celebrations on hold," Bell said.

City elections officials acknowledged the collection system didn't work.

"It's unbelievable. It was [election] judges not following hTC instructions," said Barbara Jackson, director of the city elections board. But, "we felt like we were going to learn with this, it being the first time. It's a learning process."

In previous years, city police had delivered the ballots from polling places to elections headquarters, but this year a private security firm, Crown Security, collected results from the city's 325 polling places.

Jackson said when the city polls closed at 8 p.m, Crown was to have picked up 995 cartridges -- one cartridge for each machine. The firm had 32 officers, so each officer had about 10 precincts from which to pick up results, she said.

But some of the security officers had trouble finding the polling places they were assigned to and some of the election judges had a difficult time closing the polling places and preparing the cartridges, which tied up people making the pickups, Jackson said.

Elections judges had to close each machine and seal it up. They needed to print totals. Some judges were confused about how to do that, Jackson said. In other cases, judges mistakenly delivered the results to the board, she said.

At 11: 30 p.m., one security guard was still lost. And at 12: 30 a.m., the last two cartridges unaccounted for from a Sinclair Lane school voting precinct were delivered to the elections office.

In Baltimore County, elections board administrator Doris Suter said speculation that humidity and heat hampered their high-tech voting machines was incorrect.

She said several precinct machines -- the county uses the Op-Tech III Eagle computer voting system similar to those used in 10 Maryland counties -- were jammed with ballots inserted before judges tore off the stub at the top.

Another problem, she said, was that elections board employees did not know how to operate the machine kept at elections' headquarters in Towson used to tabulate votes from the cartridges brought in from the precincts. Two years ago, a private company technician operated the machine, but this year the technician was out repairing a jammed machine in one of the precincts, she said.

Despite the problems, Suter said the final count was reached no later than four years ago.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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