Poll job calls mislead

Workers wrongly told of changes in their Election Day assignments

Maryland Votes 2006

5 days until Election Day

November 02, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

With Baltimore scrambling to make sure next week's voting goes smoothly, city elections officials expressed concern yesterday about reports that a caller was contacting poll workers and changing their Election Day assignments.

State elections chief Linda H. Lamone contacted the FBI yesterday after Baltimore officials reported that someone had called at least 10 poll workers and falsely told them that their precinct assignments had been switched.

Baltimore Board of Elections Chairman Armstead B. Crawley Jones Sr. said that poll workers are receiving legitimate calls this week from employees at the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center, reminding election judges where to go and what time to arrive.

It was not clear last night whether the calls were ill-intentioned or whether they came from the Schaefer Center and were mistakes made because of errors on rosters of poll workers.

Assignments have not been shuffled, Jones said. Such changes might be needed to fill vacancies but would not be made until early next week, he said.

The mysterious calls were being made as Baltimore elections officials hurried to make final preparations for Tuesday, when they hope to avoid a repeat of what happened in the Sept. 12 primaries, when some judges failed to show up. Many precincts did not open on time, and a judge ordered polls to remain open an extra hour.

Overall, the city has trained enough volunteers - 2,206 as of yesterday for 2,100 spots - but not enough of those are chief judges, who must attend a class to teach them how to supervise precincts.

This week, state auditors reported that Baltimore had not filled 250 of its 580 chief judge slots.

Helen Jankowiak, a Highlandtown Democrat who has been a chief judge for "longer than she can count," said that she could not return for the general election because she had no way of getting to the required refresher training course. She does not drive.

Lamone required local election boards to retrain every chief judge in the state after some jurisdictions experienced problems during the primary that resulted in late-opening precincts, slow results and a heavy reliance on paper ballots.

Election officials determined that all of the judges who reported the rogue phone calls attended the same training class of about 20 people.

"We don't want this to start spreading to other classes," said interim elections director Cornelius L. Jones.

The calls added a new element of uncertainty to a tense election. Voters have requested more than 175,000 absentee ballots after calls from both political parties to use the paper alternative rather than risk equipment malfunction.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI have established an election fraud initiative in Maryland, as they do every two years. They warned yesterday that fraud is often subtle.

"It is a federal crime to seek out elderly or illiterate voters for the purpose of obtaining control of their ballots," says a news release from U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "In addition, every voter has the right to mark his or her ballot in private."

About 10 election judges have reported that a female caller, who gave her name as "Miss Brown" or "Marcia," called them yesterday morning with new precinct assignments, Cornelius Jones said.

In some cases, judges reported the call to city officials to complain about the switch. Two of the 10 judges reported that a phone number appeared on their caller ID but that when that number was later dialed, a message said that the number was not in service, Jones said. Officials with the Schaefer Center were checking to make sure the calls were not coming from there.

In response to concerns about fraud generated by yesterday's phone calls, Cornelius Jones clamped down on election judges' personal information.

The Baltimore City Council has requested rosters of election judges, technicians and facility managers. Election officials said yesterday that they would deny that request.

Poll workers in the affected class also will receive letters confirming their assignments.

"It is extremely unfortunate that someone has resorted to cowardly and sneaky tactics to disrupt the election," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Armstead Jones, said he is concerned because, at some point, the city probably will have to move poll workers and it will be difficult for judges to discern whether the switch is genuine.

He said election officials would use e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers and a combination of methods to convey the information, including, if necessary, doing so in-person Tuesday morning.

The moves will probably be needed to fill chief judge vacancies.

Election supervisor Abigail Goldman said the number of unfilled spots in Baltimore is shrinking but that she did not know where the city stood and would not have a final count until training sessions conclude Sunday.

State law requires two chief judges per precinct, one Republican and one Democrat.

If there are still gaps, Goldman said, she will "ask someone in that polling place to take the responsibility and become a chief judge."

Megan Shook, a chief Republican judge at Baltimore's Western High School, said the system has improved since the primary.

"This time I got a phone call confirming when and where to report for duty," she said. "I've been paid for the primary, and I've already voted my absentee ballot. So I'm all set."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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