Record number of voters apply for absentee ballots

Voting

Maryland Votes 2006

November 01, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

A record number of voters - 175,500 - have requested absentee ballots for next week's election, state officials said yesterday after the deadline for mailed applications passed.

Faxed applications were still being accepted until midnight, and walk-in requests can be made until the day before Tuesday's election, so the number of ballot requests will almost certainly grow.

The surge of requests after the Sept. 12 primary has been fueled by a call from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and others to avoid the polls after absent election judges and human errors in Baltimore City and Montgomery County delayed voting for more than an hour in some precincts.

Despite continuing questions about the integrity of the state's voting system and the large number of absentee ballot requests, Marylanders remain optimistic that their votes will be counted, a Sun poll released today shows.

According to the survey, 42 percent of likely voters said they are very confident that the election system will work accurately, and 49 percent said they were somewhat confident.

Fewer than one in 10 voters said they had no confidence that their vote will be counted. The poll, of 800 likely voters conducted Oct. 28-30 by Potomac Inc. of Bethesda, has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

As many election administrators predicted, the governor's suggestion has jammed some local election offices' phone lines and overwhelmed staff members, who must individually stuff absentee ballots into envelopes.

Some Democrats, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, have called the absentee ballot push "irresponsible" and said Ehrlich's concerns are an effort to discourage Democrats, who outnumber the state's registered Republicans by about 2-to-1.

"If you want to talk about a way for your vote not to be counted, it's an absentee ballot," Miller said. "People forget to sign them. They use the wrong type of marking. This plays to Ehrlich's advantage."

Voters have asked for nearly three times as many absentee ballots as were cast four years ago.

As of yesterday morning, Montgomery County - where elections officials forgot to distribute a key computer card needed for casting votes on the electronic machines - led in the number of absentee ballot requests at 35,322. Nearly 19,800 were from Democrats, and almost 10,900 were from Republicans.

Baltimore County followed with approximately 27,300 requests and an almost even split among Democrats and Republicans.

Those who want an absentee ballot but have not yet requested one can do so only at their local elections office today until Monday, the day before the general election. Elections officials estimate that about 85 percent of those who request absentee ballots will return them.

Joseph Shear of Pikesville said that he and his wife planned to drive to Baltimore County's Board of Elections office in Catonsville today to cast their absentee ballots. They leave for vacation next week, and the absentee ballots they requested had not arrived in the mail.

"I'm worried that if our ballots are already in transit, they're going to give us a hard time," he said.

The situation is most dire in Prince George's and Baltimore counties. Baltimore County ran out of three kinds of ballots. Prince George's never received three styles. Larger counties have dozens of different ballots because of local races.

Robert J. Antonetti, interim elections director in Prince George's County, said that the shipment delay was affecting 243 absentee voters in his county.

Diebold Election Systems, the ballots' printer and the maker of the state's electronic voting equipment, had assured the State Board of Elections on Monday that Maryland's approximately 1.2 million paper ballots would all arrive at local elections offices by yesterday. The paper forms are also used as provisional ballots on Election Day.

On Monday, State Board of Elections Chairman Gilles W. Burger asked the attorney general's office to investigate Diebold's earlier activities in Maryland, specifically whether the company discovered a flaw in a key component of about 4,700 of the state's voting units in 2002 and failed to disclose it to the agency for several years.

In the letter to Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Davis, Burger, a Republican, asked that the investigation "be conducted in a manner that does not hinder the 2006 election." A spokesman for the attorney general's office said that an inquiry would not begin until after Tuesday's election.

Despite Burger's concerns about Diebold's past actions, he said this week that he would be voting in his precinct and that the state's voting system was "at the highest level of readiness that it has ever been."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Absentee tips

Here are some tips to ensure your absentee ballot will be counted:

Sign the ballot's affidavit -- not the ballot itself. A missing or improperly placed signature is one of the most common reasons absentee ballots are not counted.

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