Building a better ballot

November 15, 2006

Shades of Y2K. Like the overhyped computer system meltdown that didn't happen on Jan. 1, 2000, predictions that Maryland's general election would be rendered chaotic by faulty electronic voting machines, buggy software or voter fraud fortunately turned out to be false. This was the state's first general election experience under new regulations that allow any registered voter to obtain an absentee ballot, and despite a few mishaps, the system survived its first test.

On the heels of a blemished primary election and with alarms by high-ranking officeholders in both the Democratic and Republican parties that Marylanders should use absentee ballots if they wanted to make sure their votes mattered, election boards were swamped with requests for close to 200,000 paper ballots. No amount of reassurances from state elections officials that they had addressed the technical and human errors of the primary election soothed the public doubt, prompting unprecedented demands for more ballots than had been printed.

The result is that from Worcester to Washington counties, so many people voted by mail or by provisional ballot that more than a few local elections were too close to call until the absentee ballots were tallied. Races for county executive in Anne Arundel and state's attorney in Worcester were so tight that each absentee ballot seemed to be the potential tiebreaker. Counting continues for a few other races in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

The irony of choosing an absentee ballot over showing up in person at the polling place was revealed in the two most notable contests - governor and U.S. Senate - where the ballots weren't even tabulated before the winners were declared. Facing mathematical certainties that they could not win even after the paper ballot count, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who chose not to use voting machines, conceded their races and essentially disenfranchised themselves.

No qualified voter should be denied an opportunity to participate in democracy. But because they are subject to technical problems and human error, elections will always be imperfect. One of the tasks of the next governor and the General Assembly is to reduce the chances that these and greater problems will occur in the future. After all, elections don't have to be exercises in crisis management.

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