Montgomery Election Nearly Goes South

Peter Franchot, a candidate for comptroller, talks with Nancy Dacek of the Montgomery elections board about the voting glitches.
Peter Franchot, a candidate for comptroller, talks with Nancy Dacek of the Montgomery elections board about the voting glitches. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's minutes until the polls close, and people are on the verge of being disenfranchised. In the sleep-deprived fluorescence of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, lawyers and party activists are baying, frantic. They're in three-conversations-at-once mode. BlackBerrys, cellphones, naked shouting. A ringtone cacophony. The communication sounds coded, crazy.

Seven-o-six has no ballots!

Thirteen-twenty-one knows nothing; they're not going to stay open past 8!

We're hearing from precincts with judges who don't know squat about this!

Scouts are calling from polling places. Lawyers and activists relay these cryptic alarms across the front office counter to elections officials hunkered in cubicles and back rooms.

The officials appear to be moving in slow motion. Has the disaster of the day stunned them into a trance? Or could this be a defiant attempt, late Tuesday, to recover some methodical mojo, the old MoCo equipoise?

Democratic Committeeman Alan Banov slaps the counter. "Nobody is helping me at this McDonald's," he says. He is only half-joking. He gets another phone call.

"This is the worst election I've seen in 32 years in the county," he says into the phone. Hanging up, he elaborates: "It's astonishing. This is Third World. These are smart people in this county. We're not used to having glitches like this."

From his side of the counter, Kevin Karpinski, lawyer for the elections board, tries to allay fears. Dispatching is underway -- police sent to keep the polls open an hour later; more paper ballots sent to where they're needed. If they don't arrive, judges are being instructed to let voters fill out makeshift ballots on plain paper.

As men bearing ballots depart, men bearing pizza arrive. This is going to be a long night. In their wake comes Samuel Statland, the lone Democrat on the three-member elections board, the folks ultimately responsible. He has been visiting precincts, witnessing the train wreck for himself.

On the plus side, he says some of the dire reports from the field are overblown -- precincts he checked appear to be staying open the extra hour ordered by a judge. But Statland doesn't try to duck the obvious.

"To say we have egg on our face is an understatement," he says. "To say we are embarrassed is an understatement. . . . How do you spell DISASTER? With all capital letters."

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company