Report details voting chaos

Poor control is blamed for confusion over machines

Elections board wants to fire chief

Allegations against Lamone said to stem from account

October 11, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

State elections officials under the leadership of administrator Linda H. Lamone exercised poor control over the contractors setting up the new touch-screen voting machines that were used statewide for the first time in the March primary, leading to confusion and last-minute changes, local elections officials wrote in a report at the time.

The Maryland elections board wants to fire Lamone, and, according to sources familiar with the allegations against her, a significant portion of its case stems from the local officials' May report, called "Lessons Learned." A copy was obtained by The Sun.

"The charges, if true, are outrageous," said Gene M. Raynor, a member of the state board and a vocal Lamone critic.

But several of those who wrote the report characterized its findings differently. They said the chaos it described was less an indictment of Lamone than a testament to how complex elections are, especially when a voting system is being used for the first time.

"It happens every election year," said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, the election administrator in Baltimore County. "The best scenario would be to have everything come in on time, much prior to our deadline, so it could run smoothly. But you know what? Life isn't like that."

The state election board -- which is controlled by appointees of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- began proceedings last month to fire Lamone, who was appointed by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

The board said it was seeking to remove Lamone for "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause," though it has refused to make its precise charges public.

An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge temporarily blocked the board's efforts, saying that removing the state's top election official before the Nov. 2 election would destroy public confidence. A hearing before an administrative law judge on the board's allegations, originally scheduled for this week, has been postponed until Nov. 12.

Lamone has declined to comment.

Democratic leaders in Annapolis sharply criticized the board's attempt to get rid of Lamone, calling it a partisan power play. But election board Chairman Gilles W. Burger has insisted that politics has nothing to do with it.

A political argument wouldn't provide the necessary legal justification for firing her. The legislature changed state election law in 1998 to make it more difficult to fire a state elections chief, requiring the vote of four of the board's five members and a showing of good cause.

Many voting rights advocates believe there is good cause for firing Lamone -- namely, her insistence that the new touch-screen machines are secure and her resistance to adding a system of paper receipts for voters. But on those questions, the board has backed her. Ehrlich, too, supports the electronic machines.

People familiar with the board's case against Lamone say much of it centers on the problems outlined in the "Lessons Learned" report. Such reports are routinely prepared by local officials after elections.

Because the March primary was the first election in which the electronic voting machines were used statewide, the report focused almost exclusively on how well the state elections staff handled the switch to the new technology.

The local officials accused the state staff of being "overwhelmed by the magnitude" of the changes and -- instead of leading the implementation -- ceding too much authority to private contractors, who weren't always familiar with Maryland law.

The report says decisions were not always shared with every local board, leading to inconsistent procedures. Last-minute technology upgrades bred confusion, it says, and on the day of the primary teams of roving technicians weren't familiar with the equipment and didn't communicate with state or local officials.

"There were a lot of issues and a lot of things that were poorly managed," said Gail Hatfield, the longtime elections chief of Calvert County. "But we did get through it."

She said that many of the suggestions local officials made after the primary have been implemented.

Robert J. Antonetti Sr., who retired as Howard County elections chief in the spring, was less forgiving about problems in the primary. He said that because Lamone didn't work her way up the ranks in local elections offices, she didn't understand how harmful last-minute changes can be.

"In my 34 years as a director or election administrator, one of the things you never want to do is change at the last minute a procedure that has been proven," he said. "You don't just throw processes out in an operation ... like an election, where there isn't a good opportunity to really test."

Carroll County elections chief Patricia K. Matsko said that because the voting system was new, last-minute changes were inevitable and that many of the problems could not realistically have been predicted. "Hindsight is 20/20," she said.

The most important thing about the report is that its lessons have been learned, Matsko said. Although she and other elections offices are swamped with new voter registrations, she said, preparations for using the voting equipment are going much more smoothly than they did before the primary.

"I don't know that the [state office] could have done things better," Matsko said. "At the time, I guess we thought they could have, but I don't know."

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