Care urged when voting

Absentee voters may spoil vote if forms late, not done properly

Maryland Votes 2006

November 04, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Maryland's absentee voters should carefully cast their ballots by Monday or risk having them rejected next week, election experts warned yesterday.

Monday's postmark deadline could be difficult to meet for hundreds, if not thousands, of voters in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, where election officials finished mailing ballots only yesterday.

Montgomery County shipped more than 700 absentee ballots yesterday, but Baltimore County Elections Director Jacqueline K. McDaniel said she did not know how many had left her office.

"The ones we're processing today were received on Monday and Tuesday of this week," McDaniel said yesterday. "People can't expect a 24-hour turnaround, at least not this election anyway."

Lateness and missing or misplaced signatures are the most common reasons that absentee ballots are rejected, officials said.

A record number of Marylanders - more than 188,000 - have requested absentee ballots this year, prompted by voting problems during the September primary and subsequent pushes by politicians, notably Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Ehrlich has called on voters who distrust the state's electronic voting equipment, which many computer scientists argue is vulnerable to fraud, to cast paper alternatives. Top Democrats have charged the governor with attempting to suppress turnout in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.

Requests have been particularly high in Baltimore County, which the governor represented in the General Assembly and in Congress, and in Montgomery County, which experienced some of the most severe problems in September. Together, the two counties account for 37 percent of those requests.

"Voting absentee is easier than waiting in line, and it's paper, so it can't be stolen by an electronic machine," said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org. "But there is the issue that it has a higher chance of being rejected."

John T. Willis, secretary of state under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening and an expert in Maryland political history, said that a significant number of absentee ballots are rejected every election because voters do not follow instructions.

The two most important ones are to meet the postmark deadline and sign the oath on the absentee ballot envelope. Lateness accounted for 46 percent, or 658, of the 1,419 absentee ballots rejected statewide during the September primary. Missing signatures accounted for 9 percent of the rejections.

During the September primary, 3,716 Baltimore voters requested absentee ballots and about 70 percent - 2,640 - were returned. Of those, 126 were rejected, or 4.8 percent of the ones returned.

"The assertion by the critics of the voting system, that your vote is more likely to get counted using absentee ballots than by going to the polls, is simply not true," Willis said. "Pick any number - say, 200,000 absentee requests. You're not going to have 200,000 absentee ballots returned, and you're not going to have 200,000 absentee votes counted."

Willis observed the chaos firsthand yesterday, saying the Baltimore County elections office in Catonsville "looked like a precinct" yesterday as voters who had requested - but not received - their ballots streamed in to ensure that their votes would be counted.

Lawyers for both parties are gearing up for challenges to what are looking like extremely close races for governor and U.S. Senate. Party lawyers might ask that improperly marked absentee ballots be discarded, and they might also question some voters at the polls.

This week, the state's Democratic leaders criticized a Republican poll-watcher handbook, which instructed GOP volunteers to aggressively challenge any voter they suspect of fraud and to warn election judges that they risk jail time for failure to report the challenges.

In a memo to the state's Republican and Democratic parties, state elections chief Linda H. Lamone said that poll watchers who have concerns with procedures should contact their respective party headquarters, which will then report the issue to election officials.

Challenges, Lamone wrote, should be directed at chief judges and not at voters.

This is a more orderly and less confrontational approach," Lamone wrote.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Tips to ensure your absentee ballot will be counted

Sign the ballot's oath, found on the envelope. Do not sign the ballot itself.

Mail it no later than Monday. Local election officials must receive it by Nov. 17.

Use a No. 2 pencil.

Stay within the lines and completely fill in the ovals.

Do not vote for more candidates than the number allowed for each office.

Put two stamps on the return envelope.

Hours of operation for local election boards today:

Anne Arundel County: Closed.

Baltimore: Closed.

Baltimore County: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 106 Bloomsbury Ave., Catonsville.

Carroll County: 8 a.m. to noon, 224 North Center St., Room 105, Westminster.

Harford County: Closed.

Howard County: Closed.

Montgomery County: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 751 Twinbrook Parkway, Rockville.

Offices will be closed to the public tomorrow.

Q&A

If I have requested an absentee ballot but now want to vote in person on Election Day, may I do so?

Yes. But you will be given a provisional ballot. Before it is counted, election officials will determine whether you returned your absentee ballot, to prevent you from voting twice.

What if I want an absentee ballot but didn't meet yesterday's mail-in and fax deadline?

This requires a late absentee ballot application form, and no matter how you obtain one -- in person at your local elections office or on the Internet (www.elections.state.md.us) -- you have to go to the local elections office to get the ballot itself. Local officials are likely to require you to vote at that time, so come prepared with your choices.

[ Source: State and local boards of elections.]

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