Soothing frayed nerves is her top priority

Absentee ballots

November 05, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

With six telephone callers waiting and having just ushered along two voters who were trading insults after one accused the other of cutting in line, Yvette Finch managed a wink and a smile.

"Thank you, Lord, that it ended peaceful," she said yesterday morning with a glance skyward as she sat down at her computer, picked up a blinking phone line and rapidly said, "Baltimore County Board of Elections, this is Yvette."

Finch is the board's receptionist, and for the past two weeks she has fielded hundreds of phone calls daily and helped hundreds more complete duplicate absentee ballots at the office because the originals had not arrived at their homes.

A record number of Marylanders - more than 188,000 - have requested absentee ballots after problems during the primary and candidates, most prominently Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., used the gaffes to encourage voters to cast paper ballots, which he argues are less vulnerable to fraud.

No jurisdiction in the Baltimore region has been more affected by that encouragement than Baltimore County, where more than 32,000 people had requested absentee ballots as of Friday.

"We're leaving for Florida tomorrow, and we haven't got our ballots yet," said Lorraine Lilley of Kingsville as she tried to find the office entrance with her husband at 9 a.m. yesterday. It is in the back of an old school at 106 Bloomsbury Ave. in Catonsville.

Finch is the queen of the third- floor reception area, reminding other election workers, "Baby, there's a procedure." Late absentee voters must yank a number out of a red ribbon holder.

After the voters fill out a form, Finch escorts them into a voting area, where cardboard "Vote Here" tents have been erected on folding tables to give voters privacy.

"This was my last chance," said Brett Hillhouse of Fork, who requested an absentee ballot three weeks ago after learning that he would be on a business trip Tuesday. "Politicians have made this worse by freaking everyone out."

Finch's phone conversations make clear some voters are worried about the whereabouts of their absentee ballots. Baltimore County finished mailing absentee ballots Friday.

Finch: "Miss Jones, it has been mailed out. You should get it."

She listens.

Finch: "It was mailed out on Oct. 30. Hopefully, you will get it today."

She listens.

Finch: "Hopefully you will. It has been mailed out."

Finch then repeats five versions of "it has been mailed out" or "you'll get it" as the voice on the phone becomes louder and Finch presses a gray button on her phone to lower the volume.

"They don't believe me when I say that it's been sent," said Finch, throwing her arms out in frustration after ending the call with a courteous, "Thank you, Miss Jones."

Finch, who lives in Baltimore City and has worked as a receptionist at the elections board since May of last year, said that last week was the "craziest" it has ever been. Another worker called the reception area "mayhem."

Finch used prepared phrases yesterday to help voters understand her instructions. For instance, when a caller asked for directions, she said the office was located on Bloomsbury Avenue "like a flower blooms."

To people who have voted in person at her office but then called to say that they received their ballots in the mail, she said, "Don't open it. Write `return to sender' and mail it back because both you know and I know that it's illegal to vote twice."

She emphasized "you know and I know" in a way that made it sound as if the caller was not going to sneak anything past her.

She handled one caller who confused the sample ballot he received in the mail with his absentee ballot, which had not arrived.

"Describe to me what you're looking at," Finch said. "If there aren't oval shapes on it, then it's not your absentee ballot. Read what it says on the top."

Sometimes she delivered bad news.

"Mr. Stewart. I do not have any record of your absentee ballot request. You see, Mr. Stewart, there is a deadline date. ... I don't have a request in for you or your wife. ... I'm listening. I'm listening."

During a brief calm, Leslie Tinios, an absentee voter from Parkton waiting in the reception area, told Finch that she was "a very brave woman to be here all day."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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