Officials jump gun on early voting

City sends postcards announcing it, but issue is still in court

Maryland Votes 2006

August 23, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

"For the first time in Maryland, you can vote in person before Election Day!" reads the message on postcards sent to every registered voter in Baltimore this week - more than 300,000 people - informing them about the city's three early-voting sites for the September primary.

There's just one problem: As of now, there is no early voting in Maryland.

The Court of Appeals - the state's highest court - will hear arguments on Friday over whether voters should get an extra five days at the polls this fall or the concept of early voting fails to meet constitutional muster.

Until the court rules, state elections officials had recommended against spreading the word. Then, the postcards began to arrive.

"It was done without my input," said Gene M. Raynor, elections director for Baltimore City's Board of Elections. "If I had had input, we would have waited until after Friday." Pressed about who was responsible, Raynor replied, "Well, I don't like to Monday morning quarterback people."

The premature dispatch of the postcards was just the latest glitch as elections directors around the state scramble to prepare for an expected onslaught of early voters that might or might not materialize in advance of the Sept. 12 primary.

Last week, the state stopped the distribution of absentee ballots for two days to fix a small problem with a piece of the voter registration database.

And some officials fear that a contractor won't deliver enough of the printers needed for a new electronic voter check-in system to be put into effect if early voting begins, as scheduled, on Tuesday, Sept. 5. Polls are to be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Saturday, Sept. 9.

"It seems that every time I turn around I'm getting a bill from the state or the state is telling us what else to do," said Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., president of Baltimore City's board of elections. "I'm praying that we'll pull this off, and this one's going to require plenty of prayers."

Elections directors in the state's larger jurisdictions say they are overwhelmed this year by the demands of preparing for early voting and new technology in addition to their other tasks.

Officials in Prince George's and Montgomery counties said that they missed recommended deadlines for the distribution of absentee ballots. Calvert County missed internal training deadlines.

"I had my judges scheduled to begin training at the beginning of July, but I didn't get started until almost the end of July," said Gail L. Hatfield, Calvert County's elections director, who described the "distress level" on her staff as "astronomical." "I didn't have the training manual. I didn't have the procedures. I didn't have the poll books. I didn't have supplies. ... So we just did it on our own."

Catherine Countiss, who has led elections in St. Mary's County since 1988, said rather dryly, "It hasn't been the smoothest election I've ever worked on."

Other, smaller jurisdictions said they were preparing with little fuss. And state elections officials said that this year is no more chaotic than any other, comparing the anxiety to "a bride several weeks before her wedding."

"I just had a local elections director tell me that this was the worst election she'd experienced in her career, and then she added, `But I say that every year,'" said Nikki Baines Trella, the director of election reform in Maryland. "This is always an overwhelming time."

After the Democratic-dominated General Assembly approved early voting, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed it, arguing that the new system had been hastily approved, invited fraud, and disproportionately favored Democrats. An Assembly vote overrode his veto, and the matter moved into court.

On Aug. 11, an Anne Arundel County judge ruled that the state constitution clearly states that elections must take place on a specific day and blocked early voting - a decision that was immediately stayed pending appeal.

During arguments in that case, state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone sat behind her attorneys, proofreading a copy of the final chapter of the state's elections manual. The chapter, which provides guidance for thousands of poll workers who must ensure voters cast only one ballot, still wasn't done.

Most voters opting to cast their ballots early do not use their regular polling places. In Baltimore, they are being directed to three sites -Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the Du Burns Recreation Center.

The political battles also delayed final approval of the purchase of new elections equipment from Diebold Elections Systems until July 26, about 40 days before in-person voting was to begin. Diebold, however, didn't have some needed equipment - the printers - on hand. That part of the order won't be completely filled until the general election in November, state elections officials said.

Diebold spokesman David Bear explained that "Maryland is the only state using the printer. It's not something we had just sitting around."

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