High-tech twist for election

Machines: The new touch-screen voting system is making it harder for counties to recruit election judges.

Election 2004

February 09, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Election judge George Ruggles had practically memorized the 69-page manual on how to do his job. Piece of cake, he thought.

Then he saw this year's 101-page version, and it's causing him quite a headache. More instructions. More responsibility. And new high-tech voting machines.

"Computers," the 81-year-old Anne Arundel County resident says. "That's not my strength. I have to really work at it."

It seems that every election Maryland officials have trouble recruiting enough election judges -- the people who oversee voting precincts on election days and assist confused voters. With the state's primary elections less than a month away, this year is no exception -- only the problem has grown because of a high-tech twist.

The March 2 primary will mark the first election that the entire state has used touch-screen voting machines. Officials around the region are trying to recruit new election judges. But they're also fighting to retain longtime judges by convincing them that managing a precinct full of computer voting machines won't be too challenging.

Top election officials say the hardest sell has been to senior citizens such as Ruggles who never warmed to computers. Retirees comprise the most reliable labor pool for elections officials -- some estimate the average election judge age at 70 -- though they aren't the only ones reluctant to embrace the new voting system.

"It's scaring the heck out of people," says Barbara Fisher, the election director in Anne Arundel County. "It's a real problem all across the state."

Fisher is seeking 140 more election judges. Baltimore County wants at least 150. Carroll, Harford and Howard counties are searching for 10, 50 and 50, respectively.

The city of Baltimore is the only jurisdiction that will not use the 16,000 new Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen machines. The city has a different electronic voting system and is scheduled to switch to Diebold in 2006. Still, the Democrat-dominated city is facing its regular problem. It needs more Republican election judges.

Each precinct must have an equal number of Republican and Democratic judges. In Baltimore, Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1. So the city recruits independent and smaller party candidates to fill the Republican slots.

It needs 30 Democrats and twice as many others, just to meet minimum staffing, director Barbara Jackson says.

The state has made recent attempts to help election directors. They can use 17-year-olds, who don't have school on election days, as judges. And this is the first election that state employees will be granted administrative leave to work as election judges, but few are signing up for the 15-hour day, election directors say.

For their time, judges earn about $100 to $160 for a day's work, depending on the jurisdiction and which type of judge they serve as. They are also paid about $25 for attending a mandatory three-hour training session.

As many as 25 work in the region's larger precincts. They keep order, record who has voted and make sure everyone is able to vote.

Across the region, the carefully constructed training sessions are in full swing.

In Harford County, election director Molly Neal contracted with the county's community college to provide more personalized training. In years past, she would train 50 people per class. This year there are 20 in each class taught by the community college, and each judge has a voting machine.

For the most part, it has worked, Neal says.

"People are a little anxious when they go to vote because of the importance of what they're doing," she says. "If you have a judge who is also a little anxious, that just creates a tension for everyone."

In Carroll County, Patricia Matsko says she is trying to let her judges -- senior citizens, especially -- know that the voting machine shouldn't be scary. She says it's as easy as an ATM machine, and she tries to demonstrate that in training classes.

"When they come in the door," she says, "we escort them over to the machine right away and ask them to vote and show them how simple it is."

Baltimore County election director Jacqueline McDaniel says she tries to push past judges' initial opposition to change. She says she doesn't want to push too hard, though, and wind up with confused judges.

Fisher of Anne Arundel says she had a potential judge walk out of the first class, saying she couldn't handle it. Others have also quit.

On top of that, she is trying to hire nearly 200 more judges than she used in 2002 because state law now requires there be one voting machine for every 200 registered voters. That adds up to a lot more machines for her 2,000 judges to supervise this year.

Ruggles, who cast his first-ever vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt by filing an absentee ballot from New Guinea in 1944, left confused after his first class Jan. 13. So he returned for another session.

He still has questions.

On page 56 of his manual, he has circled "UPS" and penned a question mark. (It means uninterrupted power supply.)

On page 47, there's another question mark within the "Setting up the voting unit" section.

But Ruggles, despite some recent middle-of-the-night panics, believes he is nearly ready.

"It's like any computer," he says. "You need to know what buttons to push. I know the buttons to push now."

Interested?

People interested in working as an election judge should call:

Anne Arundel County: 410-222-6600

Baltimore City: 410-396-5550

Baltimore County: 410-887-5700

Carroll County: 410-386-2959

Harford County: 410-638-3565

Howard County: 410-313-5820

Md.'s election

Maryland is among 10 states holding a primary on March 2.

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