Election woes elicit calls for firings

Serious technical, human errors mar voting

Maryland Votes 2006 -- The Primary Election

September 14, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Equipment was missing. Poll workers were absent. Voting machines crashed. Votes were misplaced.

Glitches crop up almost every time an election is held. But an unprecedented number of balloting problems piled up one atop another in Tuesday's primary, preventing untold numbers of voters from casting their ballots, leaving candidates waiting more than 14 hours after the polls closed to learn the outcome of key races, and casting an embarrassing national spotlight on the state's elections.

The statewide debut of a computerized system that was intended to make elections run more smoothly and restore the public's battered faith in democracy did just the opposite, and sparked calls yesterday for investigations and resignations.

"There were a lot of screw-ups," said Gilles W. Burger, chairman of the State Board of Elections, who vowed to conduct a probing review of the election.

The problems -- especially an epidemic of no-show election judges that delayed the opening of dozens of Baltimore polling places, and a series of foul-ups in Montgomery County that turned some early-morning voters away and forced others to cast handwritten ballots on scraps of paper -- produced an outpouring of recriminations yesterday.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan asked the county's elections board president to fire its director, Margaret Jergensen. Duncan also called for the state Board of Elections to remove the local election board president, Nancy Dacek, and to launch an investigation.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch plan to ask for a legislative audit of the problems in Baltimore and Montgomery County, according to aides for both.

Linda H. Lamone, the state election director -- whose own role in the problems is hotly debated -- alleged poor training and misconduct among Baltimore's election judges and sought a legal opinion on whether her office could take over the recruitment and training of poll workers there.

She also asked for authority to order changes in how Montgomery officials run their elections.

"State government failed in one of its most important responsibilities -- ensuring voting rights for Maryland citizens," said Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who said his own Mount Washington polling place in Baltimore opened 90 minutes late.

"It's a sad day when people come out to vote, and they're turned away because of ineptitude."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. This year Maryland went statewide for the first time with an all-electronic voting system, with computers to check voters in and touch-screen machines to log their choices.

The reforms were pushed in part by a federal law aimed at reforming elections nationwide after voting irregularities in Florida kept the presidential election in doubt for months.

Avi Rubin, a computer security expert at Johns Hopkins University and critic of the Diebold voting machines, said that Tuesday's election left him with even less faith that election officials could prevent hackers from skewing an election.

Rubin worked at a Baltimore County polling location, where he said he and other judges had difficulty using the new electronic voter check-in equipment, called an e-poll book.

"One of the lessons I learned from yesterday, is that we now have a system that's much more fragile. With computers, a little bit of human error is magnified," he said.

Burger said it was "inexcusable" that there weren't enough provisional ballots on hand where they were needed. Voters in Montgomery County resorted to filling out the preprinted paper ballots while waiting for the cards needed to turn voting machines on, but in some precincts the supply of those also ran out.

Lamone, for her part, said she was "horrified" by the problems that snarled the start of voting on Tuesday. State election officials are still "fact gathering," Lamone said, but she attributed most of the problems to the largely autonomous local election boards -- especially in Montgomery County and Baltimore -- not to anything that her office or its staff did wrong.

Montgomery County elections officials have admitted they erred in not sending voter access cards out with packets to some precincts, which delayed opening them.

Lamone said she learned of the voting card problem early Tuesday morning and had told officials in Montgomery County to copy and distribute additional provisional ballots. But she said that apparently wasn't done.

In Baltimore, Lamone contended, it was the responsibility of Baltimore's election administrator to make certain judges at polling places were properly trained and that there were enough to staff polling stations and to open them on time.

In some cases, Lamone said, judges apparently did not receive training on using electronic poll books before the election.

And her office also got reports that some judges showed up apparently intoxicated.

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