Skewed ballots slow vote count at the polls Problems at 15 sites in Balto. County force workers to sort by hand

Election 1998 : Maryland

November 04, 1998|By Scott Higham and Melody Simmons | Scott Higham and Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF Staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

A printing problem caused delays at Baltimore County polling places yesterday when a computer system was unable to read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of skewed ballots -- forcing election workers to sort the votes by hand.

"It's like your worst nightmare, except that it's really happening," said Doris J. Suter, the county's elections administrator. "In close races, this is going to have an effect on when we know the outcome."

Election workers said the skewed ballots turned up in at least 15 county voting sites, among them Middle River Middle School, Brooklandville Fire Department, and Carney, Milbrook and Gunpowder elementary schools.

Nearly 14,000 people are registered to vote in those five precincts alone.

Callers to The Sun reported the same problem at two other locations, Riderwood Elementary School and the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville. Residents of the retirement community were infuriated by the foul-up.

"They're just putting ballots in a pile," said Elinor Schroder.

Schroder said she was told that the computer couldn't read her ballot and to place it on a table. She said dozens of other ballots, removed from their so-called "secrecy sleeves," had been placed on the table, allowing anyone to see how she and others voted.

"It's such a disgrace," she said.

Bad ballots turned up two weeks ago in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. They had been improperly cut, lopping off a "timing mark" that allows the computer to tally votes.

Elections supervisors spotted the problem during a series of tests and ordered new batches of ballots for yesterday's elections. In Anne Arundel, elections board attorney Jim Praley said the computers were able to read most ballots.

"I'm not aware of anything that would delay our tally," he said last night.

Baltimore County wasn't so fortunate.

The county recently purchased the Op-Tech III Eagle computer system to read ballots. During the September primary, the $6.5 million system jammed, resulting in two-hour delays in tabulating returns.

The Chicago-based company, Election Systems and Software, promised to send more technicians to the county for yesterday's election. Regional sales manager John Reynolds said the ballots were slowing down results.

"It's a ballot problem, and it's causing quite a few problems," he said.

Because election workers were having trouble getting the computers to read the ballots, they kept trying to slide the pieces of stiff paper into the machines. Each time the computer failed to read the ballot, it issued an error message on a roll of printed tape inside the computer.

After a while, computers ran out tape, bringing a call for workers to come to each location to refill them. The unread ballots were supposed to be placed in a locked compartment that is part of the computer.

Reynolds and Suter, the elections administrator, said ballots are not supposed to be left outside the computers for anyone to see. "The ballots are supposed to go into the auxiliary bins," Suter said.

Elections supervisors were still trying to figure out what went wrong last night.

"We're not really sure what happened," said Joe Torre, a voting system analyst for the Maryland Board of Elections.

There was more than one ballot problem yesterday. Election Systems and Software also printed questions from Baltimore County's ballot on the back of Prince George's County's ballot, according to Prince George's elections administrator Robert J. Antonetti Sr. He said the county is suing the company.

"We're very upset about it," Antonetti said. "It's just not tolerable."

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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