Voters line up outside Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
Voters across Maryland reported overflow crowds and hours-long waits Tuesday as a close presidential contest and controversial state ballot questions drew people to the polls.
The crush of voters overwhelmed some precincts, where lines bottlenecked at the check-in table or combined precincts led to confusion and multiple lines. Voters were queued as early as 5:45 a.m. and were expected to remain in lines in some locations as late as 10 p.m., even though polls were closed to those who arrived after 8 p.m.
"In all the elections I've been to, I've never seen a line this long," former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley said of her precinct at Dulaney High School.
The state said final turnout would likely dip below its initial estimate of 80 percent, but was counting ballots late into the night after hours of high-volume voting. In one case, the long lines forced voters to snake behind voting booths in Pasadena, sparking privacy concerns. While some frustrated voters simply walked away from the polls, others were heartened by the turnout.
"I have never seen it that crowded," said Tom Cunningham, who gave up when he saw the line at Digital Harbor High School in Federal Hill and decided he'd return at lunch to vote. "That's great. It's good to see people voting."
Gov. Martin O'Malley witnessed congested crowds at a Silver Spring polling center, where the arrival of a bus of seniors with special needs created a 21/2-hour wait as voters stalled at the check-in table. O'Malley's spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor asked election officials to resolve the problem.
Initial waits Tuesday morning lasted about an hour at Dumbarton Middle School in Baltimore County, where two polling precincts that were combined into one location caused confusion for voters. By 8:15 a.m., the lines had thinned and the confusion had dissipated. By then, voters had already stood shivering in light jackets, unprepared for the wait in the frigid morning.
Concerned about heavy crowds in the 2008 election, state election officials invested in more electronic poll books and thought this year's crowds would be eased by high turnout during the state's early voting period. (In 2008 and 2004, 78 percent of registered voters cast ballots statewide.)
"Clearly, we're seeing really long lines, and maybe some of those assumptions were wrong," said Ross Goldstein, deputy state administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections.
"It's something we're going to have to look at after the election," Goldstein said, adding: "Part of it's just a function of what time people turn out to vote, and there could be instances where the equipment allocation is not enough to handle the crowd."
That appeared to be the case at Rodgers Forge Elementary School, where a hundred people waited in line, only to find three election workers checking in voters while more than half a dozen voting booths sat empty.
"If they had one more person checking people in, they probably would have been full," said Richard Yost, who waited an hour and 20 minutes to vote.
Some of the longest lines were noted in Rodgers Forge, Oxon Hill in Prince George's County and at Leisure World of Maryland, a retirement community in Montgomery County, Goldstein said. Reports of long waits came from around the state despite an early-voting turnout that set Maryland records. More than 430,500 ballots were cast early.
Meredith Curtis of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the organization had fielded complaints about confusion and long waits at polling locations that handle two precincts. Curtis said at two Baltimore City polling sites, people complained about waiting in long lines, only to find out that they were at the wrong precinct.
Armstead Jones, board of elections director for Baltimore, attributed longer lines to the city's lengthy ballot, which piled 13 local questions atop seven state initiatives, the presidential election, and ballots for U.S. Senate, House of Represenatives and various judgeships.
"Of course, if these voters don't take the time to go through the specimen ballot and understand it, we're going to have long lines," Jones said. "If you don't take time to understand it ahead of time, it's going to take 10-15 minutes when you're at the machine."
The long city ballot created a confusing set of choices for Patterson Park residents Mike Brooks and Caitlin Brady, who recently moved from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, respectively.
"We're not super sure on some of the questions," Brooks said, explaining that he had read through the first three statewide ballot questions. "The rest, do they affect us?"
Baltimore Sun reporters Eileen Ambrose, Kevin Rector and Scott Dance contributed to this article.