Primary concerns: We have found the victim, and he is us

September 24, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

Maryland's primary-election failures dampen what might have been a celebration of our system. To say the least.

Every election has potential for exhilarating uplift. Challengers - such as Del. Peter Franchot, who won the Democratic primary for comptroller - took big risks and won.

Voters did their part. They sorted through their many primary options and made their selections. Mr. Franchot's opponent in the general election, Anne M. McCarthy, took an even bigger gamble, dismissing the idea that a Republican can't win in Maryland, a state where Democrats have a 2-to-1 advantage in registered voters.

Similar judgments were reflected in other races, including the U.S. Senate contest among Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, former Congressman Kweisi Mfume and many others.

Interviews with voters suggest quite discerning approaches to the civic duty. Those who went to the polls, many of them, had listened and thought about what they were going to do - and they persevered to cast a ballot against the odds.

We are left with a host of unsettling questions:

Was the recent primary election a metaphor, a symbolic expression of political, social and technological breakdown?

Did the failure of man and machine make a mockery of democracy?

What if they gave an election and nobody came? Oh, wait. It's already happening, more or less. People don't come in great numbers - and now, when they do, sometimes they can't vote, or they may wonder whether their vote was counted.

Is that going too far? I don't think so, obviously.

If you think the result of these lapses wasn't a catastrophe, ask the candidates whose year or six months of hard work evaporated even before the polls opened - or as they didn't open for hours. How many outcomes of races were decided by Election Day failures?

On the one hand, you have the hardworking candidates. On the other hand, you have the voters who wish to participate. And on the third hand, you have a flawed system that may validate the idea of staying at home.

And few are willing to step up and own the breakdown.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer made that point Wednesday in one of his patented, passionate and, in this case, right-on presentations at the Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis. Maybe he'd won his primary race, he suggested. Mr. Franchot won, but the comptroller's point was clear.

Some of what has come to light in the aftermath of the election is hard to fathom. Why would Maryland use a relatively new system for logging in voters? A rule of technology known to many: Never be the first to use a new system. Never use it to fly an airplane or drive a car - or run an election. Let someone else find out where the kinks are. Or, if you do, make sure the geeks are standing behind everyone that tries the new stuff.

Linda H. Lamone, the state elections chief, who has been kept in office by Democrats, declined to identify herself as the fall person in all of this.

A Democratic official said it isn't so, but you wonder if someone didn't hand her a script, one that concluded: "Remember this. You are not to blame."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has been trying to replace her for years, chose not to volunteer for much of the heat either. He had appointed many of the officials who presided over the operation at the local level. That fact seems to have cooled the political fires a little. The fault lay beyond his usual targets, obstructionist Democrats.

An elections administrator with great and successful election experience, Gene M. Raynor, resigned after giving his performance a grade of D. Apparently, he decided differences with other election officials were insurmountable. Mr. Raynor, to his credit, saw disaster on the horizon. He called for reinforcements - more poll workers - but they didn't come.

This much is clear: A careful public accounting is needed. How will the system be repaired without such a survey?

This year's list of primary winners and losers must surely include, among the losers, our precious system. That is to say, us.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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