Election officials learn from glitches, errors


September 15, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

A series of glitches complicated voting for some county residents on primary election day, but officials say they've learned valuable lessons that they said should prevent similar problems in the November general election.

"I think it's serious enough that we need to totally understand what happened and why. If it's something that's not going to go away, we need to understand what the fix is," said Betty L. Nordaas, director of the county election office.

The problems, though not as serious as more widespread failures in Montgomery County and Baltimore City, mainly involved the new electronic poll books, though several voters reported more familiar difficulties involving mistaken home addresses.

FOR THE RECORD - Correction
A correction on last week's column: Ed Patrick resigned from the county's Republican Central Committee this spring. He was replaced by Joan Becker, who won election to a full four-year term in the Sept. 12 primary.

In addition, there were delays tabulating and reporting election results on the county government Web site Tuesday night, officials said, because of a lack of volunteers and a misunderstanding with Victoria Goodman, county communications director.

Nordaas said more than 50 of the electronic poll books used to record a voter's name and address either didn't work at first or malfunctioned during the day. In some cases, technicians learned to manipulate the plastic activation cards to make the machines work. Others had to be swapped for spares, delaying some voters.

Poll judges at several precincts said some of the poll books "crashed" periodically during the day, then revived within a minute or two.

Mary Vaughan, a longtime voter who lives near the polling place at Vantage House in Columbia's Town Center, said that when she arrived to vote in midmorning the poll book indicated that she had already voted.

"They know me over there," she said, so "they took the card out and called over one of the judges." After using a different card, the machine worked properly and she voted electronically.

The experience only fueled her fears about electronic voting, however.

"I think computers frighten me because they can be so easily hacked into. I truly would like to have a paper record of the vote."

Richard D. Firestone, a former poll judge in Owen Brown, said his daughter and mother-in-law both encountered different - if more traditional - problems.

His daughter, Sarah Schneider-Firestone, moved to Howard a year ago, he said, but the state Motor Vehicle Administration never forwarded the changed voter registration information. She filled out a paper provisional ballot at the Owen Brown Place precinct, but couldn't vote locally because her home address was officially still in Baltimore County.

His mother-in-law, Lila Schneider, encountered a similar problem in Kings Contrivance.

Nordaas said paper provisional ballots were given to voters who had problems, but poll workers at Waverly Woods Elementary said several 7 a.m. voters left angry after encountering delays from malfunctioning poll books there.

With voter turnout at 23.7 percent in Howard, lines were rare.

The tabulation delays resulted from a change in the way the results are collected. In the last several elections, poll judges dropped off voting machine memory cards and paper back-up tapes after the polls closed at seven regional hubs, where volunteer county workers fed the results electronically to the board's Ellicott City office.

But this year, there were not enough volunteers, said Nina Benz, county director of technology and communications. As a result, election judges from all 103 county polling places converged on the board's central office at once, creating a traffic jam and delaying the tabulation.

Nordaas said that she will hire workers if need be to return to the regional system for November's general election.

Benz said the job does not require technical expertise, because all the workers do is feed the cards into a machine until the results are sent, then remove it and insert the next card.

"That is not IT support," Benz said, noting that a competent person could do the job. She and other volunteers from her staff did the tabulation from the board's central office, just off Route 100 on Columbia 100 Parkway.

"It's a good thing to do. It's a public service," she said, but volunteers from her staff worked until 3 a.m. and then reported for their county job a few hours later. She suggested seeking volunteers from a wider group of people.

Once the results were sent to the county Office of Communications, they were supposed to be posted incrementally as they came in on the county elections board Web site election night by Victoria Goodman's staff.

But Goodman said she did not understand that and instead had her staff come in early Wednesday morning to post the final results. So election night, voting results were available on the county's cable television channel, but not on home computers.

"This was a miscommunication," Goodman said, adding that she takes responsibility for the error.

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