Backup paper ballots ordered

State seeks to avoid touch-screen problems that marred primary

Maryland Votes 2006

October 12, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Maryland has ordered 1.6 million paper ballots -- about one for every two registered voters -- for possible use next month during an Election Day that critics fear could suffer from some of the same errors that snarled the start of the September primary.

The company printing the ballots is the same one that manufactures the state's much-maligned touch-screen voting system, Diebold Election Systems Inc. A spokeswoman for the company said yesterday that it had not expected so large an order and that delivery of some ballots will be delayed a week.

A portion of the 1.6 million ballots -- at least 66,000 and probably many more -- will be mailed to voters as absentee ballots. The rest will be available as provisional ballots, the Election Day backups that were relied upon so heavily during the September primary that some precincts ran out.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and others are urging voters who are troubled by electronic machines to use absentee ballots as an alternative next month, fueling demand and increasing the workload of local elections officials.

"This is a response to all of the issues," said Margaret A. Jurgensen, elections director in Montgomery County, referring to the volume of the printing. "We have had to double or maybe even triple our order."

The delivery delay is isolated to the state's larger counties, said Jessica Goon, a spokeswoman for Diebold. At a minimum, 20 percent of a county's order will be delivered on-time -- today or tomorrow -- enough ballots to fill absentee requests from voters made so far.

Ehrlich and other politicians have recorded telephone calls encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots, and the state Republican Party has paid to distribute ballot applications coupled with pro-Ehrlich literature to households.

By yesterday, the state had exceeded the 65,000 absentee ballots requested in the 2002 gubernatorial election, with 26 days remaining before the general election, said Mary Cramer Wagner, the voter registration director for the State Board of Elections.

Barbara Fisher, election director in Anne Arundel County, said that she is "worried" about the task at hand, but this week's delivery of 17,000 absentee ballots, or 20 percent of her order, will enable her to begin filling the 6,400 requests she has received.

"We literally just got another box full of absentee requests from the post office, which is unusual for a gubernatorial election," Fisher said. "I'm concerned about being able to handle the absentee process, and we're trying to hire more staff. But we can't just hire them off of the street."

Political observers are uncertain how the absentee ballot push - coming from Republicans such as Ehrlich and Democrats like Duncan and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore -- will affect the election. Some Democrats worry that Republicans are voicing doubts about voting as a way to keep turnout down. The GOP denies the charge.

But for election officials, the effort has set off a scramble as they hire new staff in their absentee ballot departments and prepare to stuff tens of thousands of absentee ballots into envelopes starting next week.

"This is always a challenge, and with 30 different ballot styles, the only way to get it right is to assemble the ballots by hand," Jurgensen said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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