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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)

She was told she'd have to fill out a paper ballot using a pencil. "It's outrageous," she says. "I feel like I'm in Florida. . . . People left this morning because they said they couldn't wait to vote. Especially in this day and age, we want people to believe in the political process again. After Florida and the Supreme Court? Please. It's so absurd. It's pathetic ."

Seated nearby at a table of Democratic literature, Democratic precinct chair Frankie Winchester added, "How could they be so stupid? This is what the board prepares for for two years. They don't get it right? I was sure it was something purposeful, but I guess not. . . . I guess it was just pure stupidity. One of those attacks of sheer stupidity that happens to people sometimes."

Coping with the stupidity as election judges inside Albert Einstein High School were two equally quintessential Montgomery County women -- Theolyn Wilson and Pat Cutlip, a matching pair of peppiness in red shirts, short silver hair and glasses. It was about 6:15 a.m. that morning when they opened their canvas judges' bag and made the awful discovery. "We were frantically going through the contents: 'Where is that box of voter access cards?!' " says Wilson.

Veteran judges, they knew what to do with paper; they kept the line of voters moving with provisional ballots. But, allows Cutlip, "It's a most unusual situation."

Dacek and her fellow elections board members had been bracing for a different kind of trouble.

This primary marked the debut of a new component of electronic voting: Electronic voter check-in at the polls. The hardware arrived late, and the staff worked heroically to get it tested and implemented in time, Statland says.

There were reports of glitches with the equipment around the state. Avi Rubin, a computer sciences professor at Johns Hopkins and a skeptic of some forms of electronic voting, posted a detailed blog of his experiences as a precinct judge in Baltimore County. "The smallest thing can lead to disaster," he wrote.

Other jurisdictions had their troubles. Baltimore City had to keep polls open an hour later, too, to make up for morning foul-ups. More than a dozen polls in Prince George's County opened late for various reasons, State Sen. Ulysses Currie said Tuesday afternoon.

Even Cardin experienced his home precinct in Baltimore County opening 10 minutes late, after a line had formed and people had given up in frustration to go to work. "We're the most sophisticated democracy in the world and we can't get our voting places open on time? It's inexcusable," he says.

But nothing matched Montgomery's debacle of the low-tech fumble with a piece of high-tech equipment. Human error indeed. Sometimes humans are too clever by half. They'll build a Mars orbiter, then calibrate it in English rather than metric units. They'll spacewalk from the shuttle, and drop a bolt. They'll invent an electronic voting system, and forget to pack . . . whoops, we don't have the card to check you in right now, Mr. Voter.

"The thing that gets lost in many current discussions of election reform is the degree to which elections are an intensely human affair," says Doug Chapin, director of Electiononline.org in Washington, a nonpartisan clearing house for election reform information. "In an election you've got millions of voters encountering thousands of poll workers at hundreds of polling locations, which creates an almost exponential opportunity for error."

He's reminded of "the old poem, for want of a nail a kingdom was lost. One could argue that for want of a card an election was lost yesterday. . . . People will always wonder if the outcome would have been different."

The paper ballots will be counted Monday. By hand. No electronics required. The fate of some races hangs, oh, that Florida word, in the balance.


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