Judge problems at heart of poll issues

No-shows leave sites short-handed

Maryland Votes 2006 -- The Primary Election

September 15, 2006|By Eric Siegel, Julie Scharper and Sumathi Reddy | Eric Siegel, Julie Scharper and Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporters

Luther Taylor arrived at St. Rose of Lima Church in Brooklyn an hour before dawn on Election Day, the first of what he believed would be a team of five judges to work the South Baltimore polling place.

Nearly an hour later, and 15 minutes before the scheduled 7 a.m. poll opening, he was still the only judge there.

Election officials told Taylor that they would soon send another judge, but when no one had arrived by 8:15 a.m. he received word that he should open the polls by himself.

As he was working feverishly, one voter told him that she could take off work if he needed her help. He swore her in on the spot, and the two were the only poll workers for the rest of the day.

"It was ultimately a mega-load of stress," said Taylor, who was working his fifth election and said the first ballot was cast about 9 a.m.

Amid the frustration of Tuesday's election - including voters who were turned away at polls that opened late, technological clumsiness and candidates who had to wait until the next morning to find out results - the issues surrounding judges were at the heart of many of the day's problems.

A rash of no-shows left the short-handed polling sites struggling to keep up. Frequently lacking training on key equipment, those judges who were there had to cope with new and sometimes balky voting machines - and understaffing caused by the absence of colleagues.

As in Montgomery County, judges in Baltimore were required to work an extra hour because so many polls, like the one in Taylor's precinct, opened late.

"It was such a mess," said Michelle Holmes, an election judge for eight years who said about half the judges did not show up at the two precincts at her polling place at Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights Elementary School in Southeast Baltimore. "I'm thinking of not being a judge for November."

Holmes was particularly upset about the last-minute notification that her poll had to stay open until 9 p.m., even though she said it had opened only 10 minutes late.

"They didn't take into consideration people who have baby sitters," said Holmes, 50. "We didn't leave until 10:35."

On Wednesday, city election director Gene Raynor and election board President Armstead B. Crawley Jones Sr. agreed that the problems stemmed in large part from a shortage of Republican judges - a chronic problem in a city where about 10 percent of the voters are registered Republican. State law requires that at least one judge from each major party be present at a polling place, but that requirement was waived early Tuesday to allow polling places to open.

They also blamed the relatively low pay of $125 for a judge and $150 for a chief judge, given the long hours, and said that the city's many older election judges may have been intimidated by the new high-tech system and decided not to show.

"The average age of a city election judge is deceased," Raynor said.

Raynor estimated the number of judges who did not show up at "a couple of hundred" out of about 1,500 scheduled to work, but officials said they won't know for sure until they process the payroll cards judges are required to sign at their polling places.

But yesterday Raynor acknowledged that dissension and lack of communication within the election board may have contributed to the problem.

Raynor, who said he got tardy and inaccurate information from staff, said he and Jones don't get along. To which Jones replied, "I'm not getting into that. I don't get into negativity." He then quickly added: "He's the director. If he doesn't have the information, that tells you something."

Raynor said he didn't learn until last Friday that out of the 290 precincts, 10 polling places did not have a Democratic judge scheduled to work and that eight were without a Republican one.

Raynor said he was assured by staff that there were enough substitute judges scheduled to report to headquarters Tuesday morning to cover the problem. When he arrived at work at 6 that morning, he said he asked how many of the 50 substitute judges gathered in the hallway were Republicans.

"Two raised their hands," he said.

Judging by the story of Paul Hartzell, record-keeping seemed to be at least part of the problem.

An engineer with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Hartzell, 65, was listed as one of six judges assigned to work at Engine House No. 52 near Mondawmin Mall on the west side, according to information provided by Jones, the election board president.

Hartzell said he did work there in the last election and in January got a letter from the election board asking whether he was interested in remaining a judge. He said he faxed a form back three days later affirming his interest but "never heard another thing."

"I figured they had enough people and didn't need me," Hartzell said. "Maybe that's why they don't have enough judges."

Arthur Grigsby, a Republican judge assigned to work at Northwood Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore, acknowledged that he didn't show up at his polling place for the first time in 15 years.

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