Election Workers' Error Blocks and Delays Voters

Poll worker Natividad Funelas prepares the voting station so Eileen Curtis can vote at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.
Poll worker Natividad Funelas prepares the voting station so Eileen Curtis can vote at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. (By Alexey Tolchinsky -- The Washington Post)
By Christian Davenport and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The most basic of human errors threw Maryland's primary election into chaos yesterday: Someone forgot the wallet-sized plastic cards needed to operate the voting machines in Montgomery County, frustrating early morning voters who lined up outside polling places and often were turned away without voting.

Courts ordered polls to remain open an extra hour in the county and in Baltimore, where at least two dozen polling places opened late, but it seemed doubtful that the extensions would resolve the confusion.

Some Montgomery County polling places didn't receive word of the order to remain open until minutes before 8 p.m., when they had been scheduled to close. Others ran short on the paper ballots that the court instructed be used during the extended hour of voting, with voters scribbling their choices on scraps of paper in Takoma Park.

"You had to laugh. It got more and more ludicrous," said Dennis Desmond, who cast his "vote" on a discarded flier handed him by election officials after ballots ran out in Takoma Park.

He said election workers rushed to a nearby pharmacy to buy envelopes in which the makeshift ballots could be sealed.

The number of paper ballots cast won't be known until today. They will not be counted until Monday.

When all of the county's 238 polling places opened in Montgomery, the state's most populous jurisdiction, the electronic voting machines were inoperable. Many precincts handed out provisional paper ballots as soon as the precinct doors opened at 7 a.m., but at some polls those ballots ran out, and at others election officials didn't know that paper ballots were an option. They just told people to come back later.

Although the cards necessary to activate most of the voting machines arrived by 8:30, in some cases, and election officials said some of the machines weren't working until 10 a.m. -- three hours after polls opened. Voters said some were even later.

Partisan bickering broke out, with the governor blaming the Democratic legislature, and the Democrats pointing the finger at the governor.

Nancy H. Dacek, who was appointed as president of the county's Board of Elections by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) , apologized for the error.

"We regret what happened this morning. It was just a fluke," Dacek said. "There was a glitch. It's now been taken care of."

The cards that went astray are called voter access cards and look like white ATM cards with a golden computer chip embedded in them. They are issued to voters once election judges verify they are registered to vote. When the cards are placed into the voting machines, the touch screen ballot appears on the screen.

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