Point is, someone's at fault for vote mess

September 22, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Someone must have raised Linda Lamone right - at least when it came to that rule about not pointing because it's rude.

"I'm not here to point fingers," the state elections chief demurred this week when she was called before the Board of Public Works to explain the mess that was the Sept. 12 primary. Later, she repeated her distaste for such unseemliness: "Again, I don't want to point fingers."

Thank you, Emily Post.

We're talking about an election here, not a tea party. Pointing fingers isn't a matter of etiquette; it's a matter of accountability.

There was precious little of that on display this week, as both city and state officials called their election czars to appear before them and explain why they couldn't run a simple election and how they're going to get their act together by Nov. 7.

Just how badly the primary went is becoming clearer by the day: The electronic check-in system malfunctioned, election judges showed up late or not at all, or ran out of the backup provisional paper ballots, and memory cards with uncounted votes on them have been discovered still inside some voting machines in Prince George's County. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is even proposing a return to paper.

But after watching Lamone and her city counterpart, Gene Raynor, this week, I'm beginning to think it doesn't matter if we're voting by machine or paper or raising our hands or shouting yea or nay - the people running the elections don't inspire much confidence.

First up was Raynor, who on Tuesday made what turned out to be his farewell public appearance before the Baltimore City Council. The city elections administrator's oddly Byronic performance - he seemed to feel greatly injured, as if the bad election was something that happened to him, rather than something that he had a hand in - was explained the next day, when he resigned.

Raynor's resignation is the final act of a little side drama that emerged after the primary. In the midst of questions over the city's Election Day snafus, Raynor aired what he seemed to feel was the real problem: He and city Elections Board President Armstead B. Crawley Jones Sr. don't get along.

There are voters getting to their polling places and finding the doors locked, election workers having trouble with the new equipment but no way to telephone the elections office, polls ordered to stay open an extra hour but not all precincts getting the word - and this is the time to talk about your feelings about your board president?

Maybe the relationship was impossibly strained - it's hard to tell. Jones didn't offer his own counter-confessional. But maybe it's that the management of elections has changed - they're higher-tech and, especially since the much-contested 1994 Maryland gubernatorial race and the 2000 and 2004 presidential ones, under greater scrutiny - and Raynor just couldn't or didn't want to change with it.

By Raynor's own rather mordant observations, the people running the city's elections might not be quite up to speed on the new machinery. When asked by The Sun the average age of Baltimore's election judges, he calculated it as "dead." On Tuesday, when City Council President Sheila Dixon asked him about his level of experience with computers, he characterized it as "practically nothing."

The next day, it was Lamone's turn. And the result was just about as unsatisfying. After refusing to point any fingers or assign any blame or explain what on earth the problem was, she was pinned to the wall by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. God bless the guy, and those moments of lucidity when he reminds us why he was once so effective.

"I want to point a finger at someone," he said. "Who messed things up?"

It really is that simple, isn't it?

He started going around the room, demanding to know what they did or did not do for the election, confronting state bureaucrats and anyone else in the packed room - I started to worry and tried to figure out my own culpability in the matter, just in case he got around to the media. His eyes rested on Avi Rubin, the Hopkins computer-security whiz who was testifying at that point, and demanded to know whether he had given state Budget Secretary Cecilia Januszkiewicz "all the money she asked for."

Schaefer eventually, and rightfully, got back to Lamone, who answered by wandering about a bit, giving a history of changes in federal elections law, before finally coming up with this: "I think it's the way the system is structured, and how it works."

Oh, that guy - the system.

You can blame the system, you can blame the new voting machines - and they do seem to have some glitches - but in the end, they're both run by people. The ones with the fingers that they're reluctant to use to point at the party to blame, because maybe they would have to point them at themselves.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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