Ehrlich warns voting `crisis'

Backup plans urged due to area shortages in absentee ballots

Maryland Votes 2006

11 Days Until Nov. 7

October 27, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. warned yesterday that a shortage of absentee ballots is "approaching crisis proportions" and asked the state elections administrator to develop contingency plans if more cannot be delivered in time.

Maryland elections chief Linda H. Lamone acknowledged that some counties had run out of ballots or had not received all they need, with the election 11 days away. But she said more deliveries were scheduled, and described the problems as manageable.

Demand for absentee ballots is high after a push by Ehrlich and others for the use of the paper alternative in the aftermath of the Sept. 12 primary, which was crippled by human and technological errors. A new state law makes absentee ballots available to voters for any reason.

The company that makes Maryland's heavily scrutinized electronic voting machines, Diebold Election Systems Inc., also prints the state's absentee ballots.

Local election directors have warned for weeks that increased demand could create havoc during a tight election timetable.

Meanwhile, some voters are growing frustrated that they have not received their ballots yet - including some whose travel plans will take them out of state.

This week, the attorney general's office announced a solution to one of the problems that marred the primary when it advised election officials to open precincts on time even if there aren't enough poll workers to meet state requirements.

No-show election judges caused havoc at some polling places in Baltimore last month, and sate law requires that four judges - two Democrats and two Republicans - be present for polls to open. Republican judges are typically in short supply in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

A spokeswoman for the state's Republican Party criticized the attorney general's advice as partisan and contradictory to a previous 1998 letter of advice which stated that polling places lacking the required judges should not open and voters should be diverted to the nearest precinct.

"This about-face from the attorney general can only be explained because we have a Republican governor running against the attorney general's son-in-law," said party spokeswoman Audra Miller. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, is married to the daughter of retiring Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Two Democratic delegates, Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore and Peter Franchot of Mongtomery County, requested Curran's advice after absent or late election judges delayed voting in about 10 percent of Baltimore's 290 precincts by more than an hour during the primary.

"I was concerned, as were several advocacy groups, that whether by design or by incompetence there could be a reoccurrence of Republican judges not fulfilling their duties and not showing up on time or at all," said Rosenberg. "The purpose here is to prevent efforts to suppress the vote."

In a 12-page letter of advice, lawyers in Curran's office argue that the 1998 decision was based on a law that has since been revised and did not take into account all constitutional arguments.

The letter and opposition to it come in the final days of a fierce election season, with each party reaching for advantages under new election reforms, including the use of paper ballots.

More than 120,000 Marylanders have requested an absentee ballot for the general election.

Ruth Fader of Northwest Baltimore County has not received the ballot she requested in September because she will not be able to vote in person.

"How this is being handled is disgraceful," Fader wrote in an e-mail to The Sun yesterday. "A democracy says that everyone has the right to vote. So where's my ballot?"

Some jurisdictions have run out of certain styles and are waiting for replenishments from Diebold. Others have enough but are struggling to keep up with requests. Prince George's County elections director Robert J. Antonetti said yesterday that he is missing five or six of his 37 ballot styles and has run out of envelopes in which to mail them. Anne Arundel County elections director Barbara Fisher said she is missing two of 27 styles.

"I've been out of one ballot style for three days," Fisher said. "They start to pile up and I'm praying they come tomorrow."

Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Diebold in Maryland, said that when the company is notified of ballot shortages, it prioritizes those orders for printing. Orders are filled within two days.

"Almost every county has all the ballots they've ordered, including multiple reorders in some cases," he said. "There should not be a situation where there is any wholesale problem."

Morrill also said that 84,000 absentee ballots will arrive in Prince George's County today.

Ehrlich raised the possibility of a "crisis" in a letter to Lamone, who responded in a letter that 19 of the state's 24 jurisdictions have received all of their ballots and that the remaining ones will get them today or early next week. She said that she ordered Diebold to find other printers to handle the additional requests, which the company agreed to do.

"I have been continuously monitoring Diebold's performance to ensure that everything possible is being done to ensure Maryland orders are being timely and efficiently completed," she wrote.

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.

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