Fewer election flaws, in general

Voting

Maryland Votes 2006 -- A Special Section

November 08, 2006|By Melissa Harris and John Fritze | Melissa Harris and John Fritze,SUN REPORTERS

Eight weeks after a botched primary brought national attention to the state - and thrust the act of voting to the forefront of several statewide races - Maryland officials and thousands of poll workers pulled together an election yesterday that was nearly glitch free.

But while the electronic voting system hummed along smoothly inside the polling places - shouldering what appeared to be a higher-than-expected number of voters - a raucous political battle was taking place just outside, with Democrats crying foul over literature distributed for the state's two top Republicans.

In at least some cases, the fliers were distributed by "volunteers" who had been bused in from Philadelphia, though no campaign claimed the workers as their own.

The ugly turn during the final hours of Election Day - with charges and countercharges of deceit, bitter claims about voter suppression and a last-minute court battle - reflected the acidic tone that has dominated politics in Maryland for the past several months, particularly in the races for governor and U.S. Senate.

"This is dishonest," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, responding to the fliers, which were handed out in Baltimore and Prince George's counties and the city. "We're here to denounce this kind of tactic."

In what some Democrats called the most egregious example of propaganda, one flier was headlined "Steele-Ehrlich Democrats," referring to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele - both of whom are Republicans. Another GOP flier suggested that U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume had endorsed Ehrlich when, in fact, the former congressman supported Democratic Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

To blunt the possible effect, Mfume recorded an automated telephone call that called the literature "a desperate attempt by Republicans to mislead voters in the 11th hour."

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the tactics were not widely used elsewhere during yesterday's midterm elections.

"That's basically a Maryland thing," Sabato said of the fliers, particularly the one featuring Mfume. "People can define it any way they want, but it's misleading. ... I just don't think that's appropriate."

Republican officials confirmed that at least some of the "sample ballot" fliers were paid for by the Ehrlich and Steele campaigns, carrying the official campaign credit line. Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said that the GOP - hoping to elect the state's first black senator - would need the support of disappointed Democrats.

"It's absolutely appropriate for the governor and lieutenant governor to reach out to their Democratic supporters," Miller said.

Inside the polling places, the election seemed to be managed efficiently - in stark contrast with what occurred during the Sept. 12 primary, when a lack of poll judges and glitches in the state's new voter check-in system caused many precincts to open late and delayed results for days.

Michael Chesson, 47, arrived at his East Baltimore polling place yesterday about 10 minutes before the 7 a.m. opening and watched as nearly two dozen poll workers, including two Baltimore police officers, prepared the machines.

A few minutes before 7 a.m., chief judge Brian Dawson had the situation under control. "We've got voters, y'all," he said. "Let's roll."

Chesson finished voting and walked out of the polling place at about 7:15, leaving him just enough time to get to work. "The last time I was here, I came in and they asked me if I was the person coming to fix the machines," Chesson said of his primary experience.

Baltimore City Board of Elections officials reported that 13 percent of the city's 290 precincts opened late, compared with 72 precincts during the primary - some by as much as three hours. State election officials, meanwhile, reported better performance overall.

In response to many of the problems during the primary, Ehrlich suggested that voters use absentee ballots. The company that prints the ballots could not handle the demand, and local election boards did not have adequate staff to prepare them.

The request prompted a sharp exchange between Ehrlich and O'Malley. Throughout the final weeks of the election, O'Malley claimed that Ehrlich was attempting to scare voters by casting doubt on the state's voting equipment.

In the end, a record number of voters - almost 193,000 - requested absentee ballots. As of yesterday afternoon, 130,635 had been returned.

Though the system has been re-tuned since September, yesterday's voting was not entirely free of problems. Some precincts were missing power cords - forcing workers to operate voting machines on batteries. A number of polling places had too few voter cards, which are needed to activate machines. Some of the touch-screen units appeared to malfunction, so that a vote for one candidate would be recorded for another. Voters had to try again to record their choices.

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