Electronic system beset by problems

At the polls

Maryland Votes 2006 -- The Primary Election

September 13, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Melissa Harris | Timothy B. Wheeler and Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTERS

Maryland's first statewide run of an all-electronic voting system stumbled out of the gate yesterday, with major glitches in Baltimore City and Montgomery County that frustrated thousands of would-be voters and forced election officials in those two localities to hold polls open an extra hour.

The snafus, which also cropped up to lesser degrees in other counties, were so severe that they produced a flurry of finger-pointing between Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates and promised to become an issue in the final two months of the campaign.

Delays in counting votes also left the contests for U.S. Senate and state comptroller - the outcome of which would determine whether incumbent William Donald Schaefer's storied career would come to an end - unsettled early this morning even as supporters gathered at hotels and restaurants anticipating celebrations.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wasted no time after learning that voters in two of the state's largest jurisdictions were having trouble voting before setting up a toll-free hot line in his office so he could compile complaints.

"We're going to demand answers," he said.

The Maryland Democratic Party and its nominee for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, instead laid the blame at the feet of Ehrlich's nominees to boards of election around the state who manage elections county-by-county.

"We rely on our governor to make sure elections are administered in an orderly way," O'Malley said.

Other Democrats were even less subtle in faulting Ehrlich.

"He can't run an election just like he can't run the state," Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost to Ehrlich in 2002, told a reporter from WMAR-TV while leaving her polling place in Baltimore County.

Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson blamed delays in opening polls in Baltimore and some other jurisdictions on many Republican poll judges not showing up. Election officials said recruiting poll workers is a constant challenge, especially GOP workers in heavily Democratic precincts, but the problem seemed worse this year.

In Baltimore, voters turning out early found locked doors and absent workers at polling places from Highlandtown to Mount Washington. Those workers who did report for duty on time struggled with a balky new electronic voter list, which at times erroneously declared a voter had already cast a ballot.

It was unclear how many voters were turned away, or gave up when faced with long lines and computer glitches.

In Montgomery County, the problems and voting delays were even more widespread, as election workers failed to distribute ATM-type "access cards" needed to activate the touch-screen voting machines. It took up to three hours to get the necessary cards distributed. Meanwhile, some polling places ran out of the small stock of paper "provisional" ballots they had been letting voters mark up manually as a backup.

With Democratic candidates and party officials complaining of voters being disenfranchised, red-faced Montgomery election officials obtained a Circuit Court order by early afternoon allowing them to extend balloting until 9 p.m.

The glitches drew cries of anguish and anger from candidates, especially in the city and Montgomery County, which together account for 27 percent of the state's registered voters.

"It's shocking, the level of incompetence, that this could happen in Montgomery County in the 21st century," said Douglas F. Gansler, the Montgomery state's attorney, who won the Democratic primary for attorney general last night. "The question is whether people are being disenfranchised, and some are. ... People died for the right to vote, and they didn't have the cards for the machines?"

Nancy Dacek, appointed by Ehrlich to run the Montgomery County Board of Elections apologized to voters inconvenienced by her staff's failure to distribute election workers' access cards, but called it "a fluke."

The city's election board initially balked at a request for extended hours from Democratic Party officials and Stuart O. Simms, who lost to Gansler in the primary for attorney general. Election officials said city polling problems did not appear to have significantly hurt the morning turnout.

But by late afternoon, city election officials agreed to extend voting after the state Democratic Party and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a voting-rights group, went to city Circuit Court seeking a judicial order requiring polling places stay open an extra hour.

The delays and glitches left many voters fuming.

"I arrived at 7 and waited because the doors were closed," said Mark Neustadt, a marketing consultant who lives in Charles Village. "I returned at 9:45 a.m. and the polling place still wasn't open. So I called the State Board of Elections.

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