Duncan to vote absentee

Montgomery chief, critical of polls, urges others to do same

Maryland Votes 2006

October 11, 2006|By Andrew A. Green and Melissa Harris | Andrew A. Green and Melissa Harris,Sun reporters

Adding to the chorus of discontent with Maryland's voting system, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said yesterday that he will bypass his polling place to vote by absentee ballot - and he suggested that his constituents do the same.

Duncan, a Democrat and former candidate for governor whose county experienced severe voting problems during the September primary, said he has no confidence in the leadership of the State Board of Elections to handle the November general election.

"There are a lot of people who have lost faith in these machines and in the election boards, and all I'm saying is don't lose faith in voting, vote absentee," Duncan said.

Duncan's comments come amid one of Maryland's most competitive election seasons in memory. As both sides jockey for every advantage, Democrats and Republicans have used automated telephone calls in recent weeks to get their supporters to vote absentee - a customary strategy designed to ensure that committed supporters cast ballots.

But the declaration of no confidence from the leader of Maryland's largest jurisdiction is no standard get-out-the-vote tactic. Duncan echoed concerns expressed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in recent weeks, leading some to worry that uncertainty about the voting system will discourage people from casting ballots at all.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who has been active in voting issues, said Maryland faces a dilemma. Questioning the validity of the voting system could drive down turnout, but he said critics have valid concerns.

"People are supposed to be guaranteed they can vote and their vote be counted. If an absentee ballot is the way to do that, then ... I see no problem with that," Cummings said. "The thing that concerns me more, though, is that I don't want voters to not have faith in the process. That is not good for democracy."

Duncan said his intent was to boost voter confidence by giving them a way to avoid the "gross incompetence" with which the primary was managed.

He becomes the first major public official in the state to announce that he will personally vote through an absentee ballot, and said yesterday he has already ordered it. Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday that the governor is considering voting absentee but hasn't made up his mind yet.

Which party or candidate would benefit politically from mistrust of the voting system is unclear.

Conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party holds that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and other statewide candidates need a strong turnout, particularly in the African-American community, to be successful in November. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by about 2 to 1.

However, a poll conducted for The Sun last month showed O'Malley with a 17-point lead among the most frequent voters, 53 percent to 36 percent. Occasional voters gave Ehrlich an advantage, 48 percent to 40 percent.

With just four weeks to go before the general election to choose a governor and U.S. senator, officials are scrambling to fix the widespread human and technical errors that caused long lines and delayed the opening of polling places across the state in the September primary, particularly in Montgomery County and Baltimore City.

A General Assembly audit released yesterday says election officials are making progress in recruiting election judges and patching the voting system but that much more needs to be done.

Duncan laid blame for the primary problems on state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone and election leaders in Montgomery County - board president Nancy Dacek and director Margaret A. Jurgensen. Duncan called for Dacek and Jurgensen to resign shortly after the Sept. 12 primary and added Lamone to his list yesterday, calling her "in over her head."

"She keeps on saying, `Don't worry, everything will get better,'" he said. "We either need new machines or a paper trail. I'm tired of the excuses. Let's get somebody in there who can do the job."

Since Ehrlich's election in 2002, local and state election boards have been made up of three Republicans and two Democrats. The boards are responsible for hiring a full-time nonpartisan administrator who runs the office and supervises county and city elections.

Lamone, a holdover from a Democratic administration who has been under fire from Ehrlich and his allies for years, called the Democratic county executive's calls for her resignation "somewhat short-sighted" given the tight timeline before the general election.

"You've got an election to run and need continuity in running it," she said. "The state and Montgomery County have been working closely together ever since the primary to make sure the errors don't recur."

Ehrlich's policy and legislative director Joseph M. Getty applauded Duncan's remarks, saying he is uniquely positioned to understand the threats to the voting system because of the debacle Montgomery voters faced in the primary.

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