NAACP to watch polling places

Group will look for voting problems on Election Day in Md., 9 other states

Maryland Votes 2006

21 Days Until Nov. 7

October 17, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

With problems from Maryland's chaotic primary elections still being sorted out, NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon said yesterday that the civil rights organization will monitor polls in Maryland and nine other states on Election Day and report any voting irregularities to the U.S. Justice Department.

But Gordon also called on Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to take steps before Nov. 7 to ensure a smooth and fair election by fixing the shortage of poll workers and the malfunctioning electronic voter check-in system.

"With all the concerns that were raised, we intend to be proactive and put necessary safeguards in place so that every citizen who wishes to vote has that right," Gordon said at the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Baltimore.

The plan announced yesterday would continue recent election-monitoring efforts by the NAACP, in which volunteers have looked for irregularities.

During the 2004 presidential elections, the civil rights organization and its partners enlisted 25,000 volunteers to monitor precincts nationwide and to answer a toll-free voter assistance hot line. Nearly 5,000 of those volunteers were attorneys, prepared to challenge voting irregularities with lawsuits.

Last month, the NAACP's national office and some local branches received complaints from frustrated voters in Maryland's primary, prompting the group and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights to seek a court order extending poll hours in some jurisdictions by an hour.

In a letter sent to Ehrlich, Gordon peppered the governor with numerous requests: verify that precincts have sufficient provisional ballots; update the check-in system; devise a contingency plan in case machines malfunction; hold additional demonstrations of new voting machines; ensure adequate numbers of election judges; maintain privacy for voters and educate voters on absentee ballots.

But Gordon questioned Ehrlich's recent recommendation that voters worried about the state's voting system vote by absentee ballot.

"Absentee voting normally has not served the African-American community very well," he said during yesterday's news conference.

Gordon and Ehrlich discussed the matter by phone yesterday morning. By the afternoon, Ehrlich followed up with a letter saying he shares Gordon's concerns and that he has asked the State Board of Elections and the state elections administrator to develop a contingency plan and to upgrade the electronic check-in system.

Ehrlich said he would forward Gordon's letter to the chairman of the elections board, asking that the board respond within the week.

In his letter, the Republican governor blamed the Democratic-controlled General Assembly for "virtually eliminating accountability at the top level of the state's elections system," with legislation that prevents the governor from firing the elections administrator, a Democrat with whom Ehrlich has had bitter clashes.

Ehrlich also accused legislative leaders of failing to heed warnings from a voting commission he named this year.

"In their rush to gain every political advantage, the leadership of the General Assembly ignored these warnings and created the unstable elections system that we saw in the primary and still face in the General Election," Ehrlich wrote in his letter to Gordon.

With the fiercely contested campaign for governor in the final stretch, each major political party has blamed the other for the state's voting problems.

Ross Goldstein, deputy state elections administrator, would not comment on Ehrlich's letter, but defended the voting system. He said it makes voting more accessible and eliminates errors, though he added he would look forward to a discussion with the NAACP.

"We'd be happy to sit down and work with the NAACP and address their concerns," Goldstein said. "I think all of the concerns they have raised are things that we have taken a look at. We want people to feel comfortable coming to the polls and voting."

In an interview yesterday, however, Gordon expressed little confidence in the state's electronic voting system.

"We know the Diebold machines are unreliable," he said, referring to the manufacturer of the state's touch-screen voting equipment. "You have high-ranking officials in Maryland questioning the voting system. If they are concerned, well, we are certainly concerned."

The NAACP's monitoring effort, dubbed "election protection," is a partnership with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and People for the American Way. Attorneys and volunteers from the groups will answer a toll-free election hot line (1-866-OUR-VOTE) set up at the NAACP's Baltimore headquarters.

In addition, volunteers will monitor the polls at targeted precincts in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Beyond Maryland, the NAACP plans to post volunteers in Michigan, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

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