Long lines to take a leap of faith

Maryland Votes 2006 -- A Special Section

November 08, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

All that was missing was the purple fingers.

Lines stretched out the doors in some cases as voters swarmed over the polls yesterday. The lines were that unusual combination of long and happy.

They were long not because the voting machines malfunctioned, but because so many people wanted to vote on them. They were long because a lot of people had a lot to say this year: about the war in Iraq and the schools in Baltimore, about stem cell research and about negative campaigning, about many and varied things but perhaps foremost among them the right to vote itself.

"I want my vote to count," Regina Miller said after she cast her ballot at the Forest Park Senior Center in Northwest Baltimore yesterday, where even after the morning, prework rush, a steady flow of voters kept the machines in business.

After several elections in which results have been disputed - from Florida in 2000 to Ohio in 2004 - and after a messy September primary of AWOL polling judges and malfunctioning machinery, suddenly the act of voting itself has become a leap of faith. Exit poll data yesterday found that 13 percent of Maryland voters were not very or not at all confident that ballots would be accurately counted.

But leap they did. Despite the record number of applications for absentee ballots this year, voters turned up in their polling places, determined to have a say in an important election.

"First off, I have a soldier there in Iraq," said Miller, who herself is retired from the military and whose only child is an Army captain on his second tour in Iraq. "I really don't think we're making a difference there, so we need a change. We need to pull out. That's their war. That's a civil war."

She was pleased rather than dismayed to see such a crowd at her polling place, and was motivated to vote because the races were so tight. "The country is split," she said. "All the negatives in the campaign, it spurred me on to vote."

The senior center was beset with problems in September - it opened late because judges failed to show up, workers didn't get enough access cards and machines malfunctioned, election judge Charlotte Lloyd said yesterday.

"We got it together now," she said triumphantly. "It's smooth sailing time."

Similarly, voters at Hampstead Hill Academy in Canton were waiting in longer-than-usual lines, but no one seemed to be leaving because of the wait, according to poll observers.

One woman almost walked out with her access card, and one man showed up with a voter registration card issued in 1972 for a precinct that no longer exists, but that was about the extent of the problems, at least by midmorning. (The woman was stopped before she took her card with her; the man was allowed to vote provisionally.)

Still, the air of watchfulness was unavoidable - as at all polling places, there were signs with phone numbers to call if you thought you were unfairly denied the right to vote. And, there were poll watchers like Jim Green, an attorney recruited by the Democrats to keep an eye out for any voting irregularities.

"Over the last election cycle or two, there's been a national concern," said Green, who kept a log of what time the poll opened, how many people were voting provisionally and why, whether anyone was being asked for identification or was leaving because he or she wasn't allowed to vote. "We just want to make sure everyone can vote."

People came prepared, with every ID they have, with the sample ballots that they got in the mail, fully versed on what to do if they were challenged. For some, the threat to their right to vote predates the electronic voting machines, and the news last week that Democrats charged Republicans with trying to intimidate or suppress voters by instructing poll workers on how to challenge people who might be fraudulently casting ballots.

"The stakes are high," said David Perry, who voted at Lombard Middle School in East Baltimore yesterday. "As an African-American, we're not exercising the right to vote that our parents and grandparents had to fight for."

He worries that younger blacks don't vote as regularly as he does. "If they only knew the trouble they had to go through," said Perry, 49, whose parents lived in Alabama during the civil rights era. "People tried to prevent them from voting."

Maybe it was the flawless experience at his polling place, maybe it was just that good feeling you get from voting, purple finger or not, but Perry had all the confidence that his vote was going to count.

"I have faith in the system," he said cheerfully. "There are a lot of checks and balances, if something goes wrong, someone will say something."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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