As Cox casts her absentee ballot, problems persist

Election offices flooded with calls, visitors

more than 160,000 have requested forms

October 31, 2006|By Melissa Harris and Andrew A. Green | Melissa Harris and Andrew A. Green,Sun reporters

Today is the deadline for Marylanders to request absentee ballots by mail, but voters can still obtain one at their local elections office until Nov. 6, the day before the general election.

Sparked by a call from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other political leaders, Maryland voters have already requested more than 160,000 absentee ballots - more than the state counted in the 2004 presidential election, said Mary Cramer Wagner, the state's director of voter registration.

Local election officials have also tripled and quadrupled their orders for paper ballots as a backup, should they experience a repeat of the chaotic September primary, which was marred by equipment failures and human error. Maryland uses the same form for absentee and provisional ballots.

Leading by example, Ehrlich's running mate, state Department of Disabilities Secretary Kristen Cox, cast her votes by absentee ballot at the Baltimore County elections board in Catonsville.

"It's really important that people's votes count," Cox said. "We think it's a good way for people to vote."

But the trip also highlighted just how much havoc the absentee voting push has played with local elections boards.

During the time Cox was at the elections office, all 23 phone lines were ringing nonstop, with one person to answer them. Most of the time, they had to ring and ring as Mary Alberta, an elections supervisor who was filling in for the receptionist, helped a steady stream of people walking in the door to vote.

Many of them said they had applied for absentee ballots weeks ago but hadn't received them in the mail, a common problem around the state as elections offices have worked to process a crush of applications without any new personnel to help. Others couldn't get through on the phones, so they showed up in person.

This month, the request for nearly 1.2 million paper ballots overwhelmed the printer, Diebold Election Systems, Inc., which also makes the state's voting equipment. In some cases, printing delays meant that requests for absentee ballots piled up at local election offices, and the ballots did not reach voters traveling overseas or out-of-state in time.

The last shipment of paper ballots to the state, which is destined for Montgomery County, is expected to arrive this morning, said Tom Feehan, Diebold's project manager in Maryland, at a meeting yesterday of the State Board of Elections. But as of yesterday evening, Prince George's County officials said they were still missing three ballot styles.

"This really puts everybody in a bad squeeze," said Joan Beck, a state elections board member.

Staff members said yesterday that voters would not be disenfranchised as long as they contacted their local elections office and explained their travel schedule. Under that scenario, the ballot could be faxed - even overseas - to the voter and then returned in the same manner. An election official would then transcribe the votes onto an official ballot.

Baltimore County Elections Director Jacqueline McDaniel said she ordered 60 percent more absentee ballots than she did four years ago but that she's still running out of them in some districts.

"What's wrong is both parties telling everyone under the sun to vote absentee and not giving us any time to prepare," McDaniel said. "It is political, and they shouldn't be bringing that into this office because we're nonpartisan."

Martin and Arlene Kurland of Pikesville tried to vote at the same time as Cox but couldn't because the office was out of ballots for their precinct. They said their encounter didn't give them much confidence in the system.

"I'm so frustrated," Martin Kurland said. "Is it worth voting? I don't know if my vote is going to count."

Cox, who is legally blind, had been an advocate for the touch-screen voting machines - which Ehrlich is now suggesting Marylanders avoid - because they have an audio ballot component that allows those who can't see to vote in privacy. When Cox voted in the primary, the audio function wasn't working, so she had to get her son Tanner, who's in the fifth grade, to read the ballot for her.

Yesterday, an aide had to read the ballot to Cox and mark the selection. But that wasn't the only snag. At first, the elections officials mistakenly gave her a ballot for the 11th Legislative District, not the 42nd District, where she lives.

"It's a little disconcerting that this late in the game we have these problems," she said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com andy.green@baltsun.com

Q&A

Here are some answers to common questions about absentee ballots:

Q. If I have requested an absentee ballot but now want to vote in person on Election Day, can I do that?

A. Yes, but you will be required to vote on a provisional ballot at the precinct. Before counting the provisional ballot, election officials will check whether you returned your absentee ballot. This is done to ensure people don't vote twice.

Q. What is the deadline for returning my absentee ballot?

A. Absentee ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 6 and received by 10 a.m. on Nov. 17.

Q. What if I decide that I want an absentee ballot after today's mail-in deadline?

A. You can download a late absentee ballot application from the State Board of Elections' Web site, www.elections.state.md.us. Take the application to your local election office and vote there.

Melissa Harris

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