Provisional ballots getting close attention

Painstaking sorting process is under way

September 19, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Local election officials began the painstaking process yesterday of sorting through thousands of sealed provisional ballots that could determine the outcome of a Washington-area congressional race and at least two state legislative contests.

"I'm not sure how many [provisional ballots] we have because it took us three days just to get them out of all of the bags," said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, the director of elections in Baltimore County, where some races hang in the balance. "We know what we sent out, but we have to figure out how many are spoiled."

Provisional ballots are cast on paper and are most commonly used when a voter's eligibility is in question. But major mistakes during Tuesday's primary, including equipment that abruptly turned off or went missing, forced some precincts to rely on them for several hours. A few precincts ran out and resorted to instructing voters to write their choices on scrap pieces of paper.

State elections chief Linda H. Lamone has ordered local elections officials in Baltimore and three counties to draw action plans to make sure the problems are not repeated during the Nov. 7 general election.

As officials continue to sort out what went wrong, the Baltimore City Council has asked the city's two top election officials to appear at a hearing today to account for the difficulties. Lamone is scheduled to do the same before the Board of Public Works tomorrow.

"It was an embarrassment," said Baltimore Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a Democrat. "This is not Florida, and it's not Ohio."

But like past elections in those states, several races are still too close to call. In the Democratic primary in Maryland's 4th District, which includes parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, newcomer Donna Edwards was fewer than 3,000 votes behind seven-term incumbent Rep. Albert R. Wynn.

In the District 11 House of Delegates race in Baltimore County, in which three of 13 Democratic candidates will advance to the general election, fewer than 200 votes separate Richard M. Yaffe and Dana M. Stein, who are in contention for the final spot.

And in the Democratic primary in House of Delegates District 7, which straddles Baltimore and Harford counties, third-place contender Rebecca L. Nelson led Jim Stavropoulos by about 280 votes.

To declare a winner, a small army at local election offices must review each provisional ballot application, which also serves as a sealed envelope for the ballot, and determine whether the enclosed votes can be counted.

Each name is checked against a statewide database to make sure the voter is registered.

"Each ballot application needs to be researched," said Kevin Karpinski, the attorney for the Montgomery County Board of Elections. "It takes a long time to do the research."

Accepted ballots - on which voters marked their choices by filling in ovals with a pencil - are fed into optical scanners for counting.

In Baltimore, many ballots were rejected yesterday because the voter was not registered or did not follow instructions.

"People don't sign the oath, or they sign the ballot instead of the oath," said city elections supervisor Millie Easterling. "On this one, the voter said that he was a Libertarian, so he's not eligible to vote in the primary, but likely insisted on being given a Republican ballot. On this one, the application is incomplete."

Still, numerous other ballots appeared to be valid. Many city residents cast provisional ballots because newly purchased electronic check-in equipment was not working properly, telling surprised voters that they had already been to the polls when they had not.

In Montgomery County, it was the job of some workers to take poorly marked provisional ballots - on which, for instance, a voter checked off his choices rather than filling in the circles - and copy the choices correctly onto a fresh ballot so that the scanner could read it.

The same process was followed in other counties.

Final results are not scheduled to be certified until next week.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporters John Fritze and Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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