washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Voters Guide

Poll Chiefs Brace for Substantial Challenges

New Machines, Lines Among the Obstacles

By Cameron W. Barr, Lisa Rein and Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 1, 2004; Page B01

Election officials across the region are girding themselves for the challenges they will face tomorrow: heavy turnout, hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters and new voting technology.

"We're warning our poll workers that this is going to be like no other election you've worked before," said Linda Lindberg, Arlington County registrar.

Local officials say they are expecting turnout to reach 80 percent or higher. Adding to the intensity is an increase in registered voters. Virginia rolls have grown by 511,000 since 2000, Maryland has an additional 390,000 voters and the District has nearly 15,000 more.

In Montgomery County, nearly 20,000 people registered in the first 12 days of October, bringing rolls to a record high of more than 517,000 voters, said Marjorie Roher, administrative specialist at the county Board of Elections. "The interest in this election is enormous," she said. "There will be lines on Tuesday."

The crush of new voters and absentee ballots had some local elections officials working through the weekend.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, about 25 employees of the Board of Elections were in the office yesterday, said Barbara Fisher, the board's director. In years past, on the weekend before an election, only two or three workers would come in for a few hours, she said.

That is not the case this year, not when nearly 16,000 voters in the county have requested absentee ballots, compared with 9,000 four years ago.

Since the beginning of September, Fisher said, more than 19,000 voters have registered. "We've been working seven days a week for six weeks," she said. "And not eight hours a day. It's been 10 to 15 hours a day for at least six weeks."

The vast majority of Marylanders will cast their ballots on electronic "touch screens," a system still being introduced in the District and Virginia. About a third of the Old Dominion's cities and counties, including Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will poll voters electronically.

When the machines debuted in Fairfax a year ago -- in an election with 35 percent turnout, less than half of what is expected tomorrow -- a software problem delayed results in some races for 21 hours after the polls closed. Some voters also had trouble understanding how the machines worked. This year, an instructional video in English, Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish will play in the precincts.

In Maryland, nonprofit TrueVoteMD has fought unsuccessfully to persuade the state to implement a "voter verified" paper record of each vote that could be used in a manual recount. In mid-September, the state's highest court upheld a lower court's ruling that Maryland had adequately ensured "the security and secrecy of ballots," even without a paper trail.

Linda Schade, a founder of TrueVoteMD, said poll watchers will stand outside polling places tomorrow to educate voters about the machines and document any problems. She said the organization would continue its campaign. "There's a near total consensus among computer professionals about the need for a paper trail," she said.

A federal judge said late last month that TrueVoteMD activists must stay at least 100 feet from the entrance to a polling place, a zone that is to be kept free of campaigners and advocates.

Most registered voters will not need to present identification. However, first-time voters who registered by mail and did not submit a copy of their ID or bring one to a polling place will be asked to complete a "provisional ballot" that will be counted once their registration is verified.

Alice P. Miller, director of elections for the District's Board of Elections and Ethics, encouraged all residents to bring photo ID because some polling places are in buildings that require identification to enter. For example, the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, where several District government offices are located, requires identification to enter.

Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, which monitors District government, said she expected problems with people not having identification, even though they are not required to bring it. "It's the world that we live in these days," she said.

In the District, voters will have a choice of a touch screen or a paper ballot that is read by an optical scan machine in 142 polling places. The two voting machines process returns differently, and during the Sept. 14 primaries, results were delayed for hours because the elections board had difficulty combining tallies from the systems.

Election officials said last week that more timely returns would be available but that they still were working out how to combine results. The touch screens use a cartridge that must be delivered by hand to election headquarters, and the results from the optical scans can be sent by modem to headquarters.

Fairfax and neighboring areas in Northern Virginia said their biggest worry is long lines -- and the resulting parking problems -- which could set a precedent even for a presidential election.

"With people's emotions being so high about the election itself, people are going to get very upset if they show up at the polls and they're not eligible to vote" because of registration irregularities, said Lindberg, the Arlington registrar.

Jean Jensen, Virginia's election chief, said her office has installed a new telephone system with 47 lines, almost all of them staffed. Montgomery's elections board has also upgraded its phone system.

A hand-held device will debut to smooth out potential glitches in Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Poll workers will be able to look up names, addresses, Social Security numbers and precincts for voters who show up at wrong locations, who have inaccurate voter cards or who do not know whether they are registered.

In Loudoun, the country's fastest-growing county, Registrar Judy Brown said her office has received hundreds of calls in recent weeks from new voters complaining that they had not received their identification cards.

Also, for the first time in 20 years, her staff missed the deadline to place new registrations in a database used to print poll books.

The office rushed last week to enter the names by hand. "We're swamped with people who have no idea where to go on Election Day," she said. "I keep telling everybody that if we had one more week, we'd be okay."

Staff writers Carol Morello and Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company