A flood of absentee ballot requests

Baltimore County

Maryland Votes 2006

November 01, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

For the past few weeks, workers at the Baltimore County Board of Elections have opened so many absentee ballot requests and stuffed so many envelopes that their fingers are cracked and covered with paper cuts.

Many are working seven days a week trying to handle the avalanche of mail. But still the requests - and the voters - keep arriving at the Catonsville office.

Yesterday, a week before the general election and the last day that requests for absentee ballots could be postmarked, officials said they had received an unprecedented number of requests, more than 2 1/2 times as many as they got for the last gubernatorial election, in 2002.

They blamed their staggering workload on politicians who have incited constituents to distrust the voting process.

"When we saw that both parties were telling people to vote by absentee ballot, we knew we were in for it," said Katie Brown, deputy director of the Board of Elections.

Spurred by snafus at the polls during the primary elections and concerns over electronic voting machines, politicians have urged constituents to vote absentee even if they are able to make it to the polls on Election Day. And voters are listening.

Many of the county residents who packed the Board of Elections offices yesterday sought absentee ballots for conventional reasons, saying they would be out of town or in the hospital on Election Day. But several said they were choosing to use absentee ballots because they worried that they would not be able to vote on Election Day or that their votes would not be counted.

"I'm a little concerned about the accuracy of the machines themselves, so I'm voting by absentee because of the paper trail," said Tim Bush, a Democrat from Gwynn Oak who picked up absentee ballots for himself and his wife. "These machines aren't that credible."

"The makers of the machines can program them to do whatever they like," he said. "How do we know that our votes aren't just erased out?"

Mena McGee, a Republican from Catonsville, said she did not encounter problems on primary day but that reports of problems at the polls led her to worry that her vote would not be counted.

Receiving a recorded phone message from Kendel Ehrlich, wife of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., on the subject further persuaded McGee to vote absentee.

"My fear grew more and more as they were afraid of the machines not working," she said.

Election officials say they are staggered by the surge of requests for absentee ballots. Baltimore County has received more than 28,000 requests, said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, director of the Board of Elections. She expects that figure to climb to 30,000 in the coming week because people can continue to request absentee ballots in person at the office.

About 15,000 absentee ballots were requested during the 2004 presidential election, and 10,000 were requested in 2002, the last gubernatorial race, she said.

In part, the increase results from a change in state law prompted by a bill that Ehrlich vetoed. Previously, only people who would be traveling or ill on Election Day were permitted to vote absentee. This is the first general election in which any registered voter is allowed to use an absentee ballot.

The real cause of the rising popularity of absentee voting is politicians, McDaniel said. The majority of absentee ballot requests that her office receives are sent on forms created by the Republican or Democratic parties, which she called a shame.

"I've been in this business for a long while, both as a member of the board and then as director, and it's really sad that it's gotten down to these scare tactics," she said.

Although McDaniel ordered 60 percent more ballots than she anticipated needing, the county has run out of ballots for some areas and is waiting for another shipment.

That frustrated Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff, Woodbrook residents who were unable to pick up their ballots yesterday because there weren't any left. They said that a Board of Elections employee had assured them over the phone that their ballots were ready and waiting for them.

McDaniel told the Meyerhoffs that she would take ballots to their home.

Yesterday, office employees appeared to be exhausted and harried as they tried to placate voters angry about long waits.

"This is hell," Brown said.

Brent Lockwood, a Hunt Valley resident who plans to be traveling on Election Day, was one of many voters frustrated by a long wait. He said he had requested absentee ballots online weeks ago but that they never arrived. Yesterday, he called the Board of Elections and waited on hold for 20 minutes before he was hung up on, he said.

After driving to the office, he waited for more than 20 minutes before being helped, he said, adding, "I just thought it would be easy just to come in and pick up an application."

Yesterday, county employees helped nearly 400 voters at the office and sent out about 4,000 ballots, McDaniel said.

She attributed some of the problems to Diebold Election Systems Inc., which she said sent the ballots late. They were supposed to arrive Oct. 7, but some didn't arrive until Oct. 18, McDaniel said, creating a backlog and leading many voters to assume that their requests had been lost.

McDaniel said that she hopes that this is the last general election for which any voter can request an absentee ballot.

"Sometimes, all the antics that politicians play take away from the voting process," she said. "It's sad. It takes away from what the meaning of voting is."


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