Election judges are needed

Shortage of poll workers blamed for many election day problems

Maryland Votes 2006

September 17, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Anne Arundel County's elections director blamed a shortage of poll workers for a mishap last week that left thousands of primary votes missing and uncounted on election night, and said she worries that a lack of volunteers and inadequate training with electronic voting machines could "overload" the county's vote-counting system in November.

Candidates for several offices, including those in the hotly contested Republican primary for county executive, had to wait until the day after the primary to find out who won, as election officials sorted out what happened to several missing electronic memory cards that stored votes.

While Elections Director Barbara Fisher said the problems Tuesday in Anne Arundel "were minimal in comparison" to those in Montgomery County and Baltimore City, she worried that older poll workers' intimidation by the new technology would send more volunteers fleeing, leaving precincts further short-handed and the integrity of the electoral process in doubt.

"Something has got to stop," said Fisher, an elections official for 30 years. "It's going to explode."

County election officials said they will begin additional recruiting in the run-up to the general election Nov. 7, and political observers hope that new attention to the issue will motivate volunteers to step forward. Others said the real concerns lie not with manpower, but with the machines.

Turnout in Anne Arundel County was relatively light for Tuesday's party primaries, 35 percent for Democrats and 27 percent for Republicans. With substantially more voters expected to turn out to cast ballots for governor, U.S. Senate and county executive, among others, Fisher said she is worried the voting system could be overtaxed.

An emergency call by county officials on the eve of the primaries reduced an anticipated shortfall of election judges from 100 to 70 for Tuesday's primaries. Several of the county's 189 polling precincts were severely undermanned and some judges ill-trained, said county election officials.

As a result, votes totals from eight precincts were not recorded Tuesday night.

Votes entered into touch-screen machines were recorded onto memory cards, and those cards were supposed to be removed, sealed in red bags and hand-carried to election officials in Glen Burnie.

Two cards - from Riviera Beach Elementary School in Pasadena and Meade Middle School - were not placed in red bags. They were misfiled and not discovered by officials until Wednesday morning.

Poll workers left memory cards in machines at six precincts: Bodkin Elementary School in Lake Shore, Faith Community Church in Gambrills, Georgetown East Elementary School in Annapolis, High Point Elementary School in Pasadena, Jones Station Fire Station in Arnold and Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis.

Fisher said the number of missing votes exceeded 6,000 at those eight precincts, though she didn't have an exact figure.

She called the error unacceptable and said she will spend the next few weeks instituting new safeguards to ensure there is no repeat of what occurred Tuesday.

"One little human error creates a tremendous domino effect," she said. "One chief judge leaves a card. Three hours later, there are thousands of missing ballots. That is ridiculous."

Candidates and their supporters grew anxious Tuesday evening as vote totals were slow to be posted. Some in heavily contested races grew distressed when, as of 3 a.m., nearly one-third of the votes remained uncounted.

All of the missing cards were recovered, but the count was not finished until after 9 p.m. Wednesday. Fisher said the missing memory cards were not tampered with. The machines holding the cards at the six precincts were locked and sealed with tamper-proof tape, she said. The two misfiled cards never fell out of possession of election officials, she said.

Anne Arundel was not the only county experiencing election-night problems with electronic voting machines.

In Montgomery, election workers failed to distribute ATM-type "access cards" needed to activate the voting machines. Some polling places ran out of "provisional" paper ballots. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan called on the county election's board president to fire its director.

In Baltimore, poll workers failed to open several precincts on time, and the electronic voter registries - the new computerized voter check-in system - indicated that some people voted when they had not. Poll hours were extended by an hour in both jurisdictions.

Fisher acknowledged difficulties that Anne Arundel poll workers had in operating the voter registries, citing a lack of training due to the late arrival of the machines. The Board of Public Works did not approve the final order for the necessary equipment until July 26. Fisher said that Anne Arundel did not receive its registries until two weeks before the primaries.

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