Absentee leadership in Maryland as election nears

October 04, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

Both major candidates for governor of Maryland now urge their supporters to vote absentee - pretend they're going to be away on Election Day. It's a high-level vote of no confidence in the system.

Even as they seek the highest office in the state, the contenders say they don't trust the system that would take them there. How should the rest of us feel?

The late, lamented primary election's biggest loser was, in case you hadn't noticed, public confidence in the election system.

It's a crisis that has provoked defensive reactions from the candidates, but has not inspired anyone to take charge and fix the problems in a transparent way.

Oh sure, there's hand-wringing and explaining and demonstrating. But someone needs to step up with credible proof that problems have been found and solved.

Urban myths about lost votes are abroad in the land - despite the absence of hard evidence that votes were stolen or uncounted or thrown into the harbor.

Perhaps there is a gap in the system, a failure to provide for situations - like this one - where all the usual officials are compromised by their involvement in the year's election.

Meanwhile, voters are wondering if their votes will be counted. They're wondering if they'll be able to vote when they show up at the polls. They're wondering whether to vote absentee - absent or not.

We are looking at a system in need of rescue.

System? Did I say system? In the areas where the majority of Marylanders cast their ballots, use of the word "system" is a triumph of hope over doubt. The primary was, instead, an illustration of Murphy's Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.

We should have seen it coming.

Elections and their conduct in Maryland have perhaps never been so politicized. Think about all the turmoil over control of the state Board of Elections, the computerized voting getting test runs in Maryland and the largely unrecognized damage caused by aging election judges unfamiliar with technology, old or new.

Politics first: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has been trying for at least a year to get rid of Linda H. Lamone, head of the elections board. How well do any of us do our jobs when we're under that kind of pressure? The governor has argued that Ms. Lamone should have been removed automatically in honor of his authority as governor. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, has resisted the ouster effort with every fiber of his partisan being.

Local boards of election are headed by Republicans for the first time in more than a quarter-century. They are, by definition, new to the job. It is likely that these boards reflect the relative lack of depth in the Maryland GOP as a whole. Successful political parties win races and reward the faithful with positions on the local election boards. No win, no experience - and a shaky performance on Election Day.

The board in Baltimore, nominally at least in the hands of Republicans, has been in turmoil partly because the election board chairman, Armstead B. C. Jones Sr., wanted the job of administrator, which went to Gene M. Raynor, head of the city board for many years and of the state board under former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Many assumed that Mr. Raynor, a supporter of Governor Ehrlich, was shoehorned into the job by Mr. Ehrlich. Not so, Mr. Raynor says: State Sen. George H. Della, who controlled the board by virtue of his friendship with one of the Republican members, steered the job to Mr. Raynor.

Mr. Raynor says only 300 of the city's 2,000-plus election judges got any training. Mr. Jones, head of the board, says Mr. Raynor is wrong, but has said he doesn't know how many were trained. Anything less than 100 percent would be insufficient.

Mr. Raynor says there was considerable strife in the office because he got the job and Mr. Jones did not. Mr. Jones says Mr. Raynor's post-primary resignation was applauded by just about everyone in the office.

It is surely a good thing that training for the general election has been taken over by the Schaefer Center at the University of Baltimore and John Willis, a scholar of Maryland elections, an expert in the new election computers and Maryland secretary of state under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

This and yesterday's test of some new machines are steps in the right direction. But more is needed.

People who want to lead our state ought to find a way to lead in the restoration of confidence in the election system.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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