Election judges are still needed

Republican workers especially hard to find a month before voting

Maryland Votes 2006

October 08, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Maryland elections officials are scrambling to find and train the thousands of poll workers needed to avoid a repeat of last month's disastrous primary, but find themselves facing serious shortages - particularly of Republican judges - with just a month to go before Election Day.

During September's chaotic voting, no-show election judges were a major problem in Baltimore, resulting in about 10 percent of the city's precincts opening more than an hour late. Since then, the call has gone out for recruits and more than 1,300 people have answered, but only 125 are from the GOP, said Abigail Goldman, an elections supervisor with the Baltimore Board of Elections.

State law requires that precincts with more than 200 registered voters have at least two election judges from each of the major parties.

"We're in excellent shape, but no matter what, it's going to be hard to get Republicans," said Cornelius L. Jones, interim elections chief in Baltimore. "There are 30,000 of them in the city. That's not much to work with."

Last week, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's office began mailing letters to the city's 31,000 Republicans, asking for their help. An O'Malley spokeswoman, Raquel M. Guillory, said the distribution would be finished by this weekend.

"I am writing you because, regardless of political party, all of us want a fair and efficient election on November 7," wrote O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor. "Although there is still a need for qualified Democratic and Republican judges in Baltimore City, the need for Republican judges is particularly acute."

Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane said that glitches during the primary have compounded the problem of recruiting volunteers but that the party "still has 30 days to work on it."

"In Baltimore City, we are woefully underrepresented in voter registration," said Kane, who has told the city's Republican Central Committee to conduct outreach. "For us to have gotten where we are, so far, is pretty good."

The recruitment problem is not isolated to Baltimore. Prince George's County needed 600 more judges as of last week. Baltimore County won't know its gap until it finishes paying all of its judges who served on Sept. 12 but was 500 people short during the primary. Anne Arundel County estimates that it is 50 Republicans short.

Maryland became a national example of voting flaws last month, when a combination of human error, technology glitches and personnel problems led to late-opening polls and thousands of voters resorting to paper provisional ballots.

Officials are scrambling to fix the problems, and last week announced that the state's new electronic voter check-in machines had been repaired and could be used.

The crisis has shed new light on the political feuding that has surrounded the state's voting system for years. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has denounced Democratic efforts to institute early voting and has tried to fire the state elections chief, Linda H. Lamone, a holdover from his predecessor's administration.

Some Democrats allege that Ehrlich, a Republican, is fomenting doubt about the state's voting system as a way to suppress turnout and boost his re-election prospects.

Many Marylanders are responding to calls issued by Ehrlich and others to help at the polls, and applications are streaming in to these jurisdictions at an unparalleled rate, officials said. But there is still much to do - the judges must be trained or retrained, shipped absentee ballots and given an oath - before election officials can place them in precincts and then fill the remaining holes.

"It's hard to pinpoint how many we need right now because we've just started," said Barbara L. Fisher, election director in Anne Arundel County. "We've switched our database over to the general election two days ago, and we're still getting people dropping out and filling in."

Local election officials said that their jobs have been made both easier and harder in the weeks since the Sept. 12 primary.

On Thursday, the state approved the use of its electronic voter check-in system after the manufacturer fixed the technical problems that perplexed judges during the primary. Most notably, the system, which election officials value because it reduces their paperwork, does not crash after every 43rd voter is processed.

However, Ehrlich's campaign to encourage party loyalists to cast absentee ballots - bypassing the electronic equipment that he argues is vulnerable to fraud - seems to have taken hold and could delay election results.

Absentee ballots must be scanned individually for tallying. The most onerous part of the process, however, occurs before the election: inserting the absentee ballots into mailing envelopes by hand. That will not start for a few more weeks.

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