Balloting Breakdown

Thursday, September 14, 2006

IN BALTIMORE, many people who tried to vote early Tuesday found polling places shut because election judges hadn't shown up for work. In Prince George's County, the Board of Elections inexplicably went home early yesterday morning without counting all the primary ballots. And Montgomery County endured not only the morning fiasco with inoperable machines but also chaos at night as election officials ran out of paper ballots for extended voting.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the way elections are run in Maryland, and there are plenty of people to share the blame. Let's start at the top with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who bears ultimate responsibility since it is largely his nominees on local boards who run elections county by county. Then there is Linda H. Lamone, chairman of the State Board of Elections and an appointee of Mr. Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, whose office is charged with the administration of elections across Maryland but who maddeningly said that "there's nothing we can do" about ineptitude on the local level. It is regrettable that these two officials have spent so much time fighting with each other rather than working to guarantee smooth elections.

Partisan bickering over the election process -- on issues ranging from which machines to purchase to whether there should be early voting -- can't have helped the local boards as they prepared for the primary. We are sympathetic to the complaints of hardworking officials about having to deal with new technology and last-minute changes to the ballot. But that cannot be an excuse for the incompetence that led to the breakdowns in Tuesday's voting. As more than one politician has observed, boards of elections do one thing -- run elections -- and they are given plenty of time to get ready.

Disarray on Election Day does more than inconvenience voters. In Baltimore, it has led to conspiracy theories about Republican judges in cahoots. In Prince George's, it has left people wondering why a close county executive race was left undecided for many hours. And in Montgomery, the outcomes of several races were affected.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) is right to call for the removal from office of Board of Elections President Nancy H. Dacek and Election Director Margaret Jurgensen as the first step in restoring integrity to the voting process. It is encouraging that a spokesman said Mr. Ehrlich, in a departure from the stance he took Tuesday, will work with both parties as well as the state board to ensure a better job is done in November. After all, with his name on the ballot, he too has a stake in the outcome.

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