Baltimore lagging in preparation for election

Training, posting of poll workers is going slowly

Maryland Votes 2006

October 22, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Baltimore is lagging behind Maryland counties in training and assigning thousands of poll workers needed to run the coming general election, raising concerns that next month's voting could suffer from some of the same problems that marred the September primary.

With 16 days to Election Day, elections officials in the overwhelmingly Democratic city appear to have recruited the number of Republican poll judges they need. But just 700 of 3,500 of the workers have been placed in a precinct, said Cornelius L. Jones, interim elections director. At a minimum, the city's precincts must have four poll workers, two from each of the major political parties.

Baltimore and other municipalities are scrambling to improve their voting systems after a chaotic primary complicated by staffing and equipment problems.

The problems were particularly acute in the city, where about 10 percent of the city's 290 precincts opened more than an hour late after judges -- in some cases the precinct's lone Republican -- failed to show or were never placed in a precinct by elections officials.

With retraining, which was mandated by the state, under way, city Board of Elections President Armstead B. Crawley Jones Sr. said he is concerned about classes so large that workers don't get enough time to practice operating the state's electronic machines and doing other procedures.

"I'm on the conservative, cautious side, so yeah, I'm worried," said Bruce A. Myers, head of the General Assembly's Office of Legislative Audits in Annapolis, which has been monitoring city elections officials and issuing weekly reports since September. "It can still be done, but geez, it's coming down to the wire."

This year, Maryland has become a national battleground in the debate over voting procedures as well as an example of failure after errors led to an extra hour of voting in Baltimore and Montgomery County, and an over-reliance on a paper-based backup system.

In response, the State Board of Elections came down hardest on Baltimore, requiring 10 "corrective actions," including retraining of temporary workers before Nov. 7, trying to limit those classes to 20 people, having one piece of equipment for every two students and outsourcing instruction to the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

Election boards in the rest of the state were required only to retrain chief judges, of which there are two per precinct. The state's largest counties, however, are grappling with other concerns.

Prince George's County has a backlog of nearly 7,000 absentee ballots waiting to be mailed because it didn't receive all of its ballot styles until Thursday, said Robert Antonetti, the interim county elections chief.

To give overseas residents and soldiers enough time to vote, the county is paying to ship the ballots overnight.

"The initial load of requests piled up before we got our ballots," Antonetti said. "Republicans are mailing more requests to our office, and Democratic Party employees are delivering them in stacks. We're trying to catch up."

Saying his confidence in the state's election system has been eroded, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has called for voters to cast paper absentee ballots, with the state Republican Party sending applications to thousands of Marylanders.

Democrats have launched a similar effort, but are also calling on other voters to make sure they come to the polls. Requests for absentee ballots are approaching 100,000 -- about 66,000 were used in state elections four years ago -- and some close races might not be decided until days after the polls close.

With competitive races for governor and an open U.S. Senate seat, the stakes this political season are high, and local elections boards are bearing the stress.

Baltimore County, which state auditors are not monitoring, is short about 150 Republican and 100 Democratic judges, and has started targeted recruitment.

The county was missing two of its 42 absentee ballot styles as of Friday morning and running low on 13 others, said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, the county's elections chief.

During a training session in Anne Arundel County, elections chief Barbara Fisher sprinkled her 70-page PowerPoint presentation to new election judges with horror stories from the primary.

Six precincts there didn't return results to county offices, meaning election night returns were about 7,000 votes short. Some people cut up -- with scissors -- malfunctioning voter cards rather than save them for reprogramming later, meaning the county must pay for replacements.

Some precincts returned the voting units all stacked on one end of the cart, posing a safety risk. Others forgot to pick up their supplies or in one case, a chief judge arrived five minutes before polls were to open. Fisher fired him after the election.

"What kind of people did you hire?" one new chief election judge remarked during the presentation, eliciting laughter from the 40 attendees.

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