Absentees loom as wild card

Tallying the vote

Maryland Votes 2006

November 07, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Nearly 2 million Marylanders are expected to go to the polls today - but with a record number of requests for absentee ballots, it's anyone's guess when the outcome of two down-to-the-wire statewide contests will be known.

More than 191,000 people have requested absentee ballots, which could determine close races for U.S. Senate and governor but which won't begin to be counted until Thursday morning.

The tallying of votes during the next 10 days is expected to be a crucial test of the state's electronic voting equipment and the politicians and election managers who promoted it.

Today's election comes eight weeks after a chaotic primary, in which electronic check-in equipment malfunctioned and hundreds of precincts in Montgomery County and Baltimore failed to open on time when equipment was not delivered and election judges failed to show up.

It also will put Maryland in the national spotlight as voters across the country grapple with new, federally required electronic equipment.

With one of the most sophisticated voting systems in the country deployed, the equipment's performance will ultimately decide whether the state's machinery is merely tweaked or revamped next year.

"We have instituted several layers of checks and balances," said Marjorie Roher, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Board of Elections, which forgot the wallet-sized cards needed to run the voting units during the primary. "We were almost humiliated by what happened. We have taken every step we could possibly take to prevent it. We will open on time."

Gilles W. Burger, chairman of the State Board of Elections, said that staff members have not raised any last-minute concerns with him and that he expects things to go "fairly well" tomorrow.

He said that the computers used to check in voters at precincts, called e-poll books, have been strenuously tested since they crashed after every 43rd voter during the primary and are expected to perform flawlessly today.

Patience will be needed during peak traffic times before and after work when lines are expected to form, officials have said.

"Unlike the primary, we also have a very comprehensive contingency plan, with extra supplies and instructions built-in," Burger said. "I think that we're ready."

Two issues, however, do linger.

Baltimore has enough judges overall but has not filled every chief judge position. City elections board Chairman Armstead B. Crawley Jones Sr. and interim director Cornelius L. Jones did not know yesterday how many spots remained open.

Armstead Jones said that the problem would be manageable. The city has trained and assigned about 2,900 judges for 2,100 spots since the primary.

Chief judges, who supervise precincts, typically complete a more advanced training session than other judges, who have fewer responsibilities.

"If there's not a chief judge, someone of the same political party is going to have to step up and take that role," Armstead Jones said. "Everyone is better trained so things should go much better."

Another concern is absentee ballots.

After the primary, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, expressed a lack of confidence in election administrators and called on voters to cast absentee ballots.

The two political parties also began mailing absentee ballot request forms to voters.

Those actions, however, were taken without advance notice to local election officials, who had very few employees in their absentee departments, or Diebold Election Systems Inc., the manufacturer of the state's voting equipment and the ballots' printer.

Overwhelmed by the demand - the number of absentee requests this year is three times the number cast in 2002 - Diebold could not get ballots to local boards of elections in time.

The Texas-based company hired additional printers, but not before election officials had to mail photocopies of some ballots, and order return envelopes from another company.

In some counties, those envelopes were too small to hold the absentee ballots. And in other places, local boards waited for the original ballots, delaying shipment.

Baltimore County, for instance, overnighted the last of its absentee ballots - about 20 of them - Saturday morning, said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, the county's elections director, whose office has been inundated with calls from frustrated absentee voters.

"Some of them went out as far back as Oct. 25 and haven't arrived," she said. "Others went out on Thursday and the voter has already received and returned them."

Paul Schurick, a spokesman for the governor, said the Ehrlich campaign is making thousands of telephone calls to people who requested absentee ballots to make sure they received them - and to tell them they can go to their precincts today and cast provisional ballots even if they had planned to vote absentee.

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