Q & A

A Look at What Went Wrong in Montgomery

The delayed arrival of voter access cards Tuesday morning disrupted balloting in primary election in Montgomery County.
The delayed arrival of voter access cards Tuesday morning disrupted balloting in primary election in Montgomery County. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Q Why was Tuesday's primary election such a mess in Montgomery County?

A Election officials say it appears that a lot of things went wrong at once. Maryland officials provided a new electronic system to check in voters and see whether they were properly registered. In some places, the machines didn't start, spit out incorrect information or crashed. Then there was the well-publicized "human error." Someone in the county's election office forgot to distribute voter access cards, which are needed so each voter can cast an electronic ballot. The cards were not delivered to the county's 238 polling places until well after the polls opened at 7 a.m. Voters had to wait or use paper ballots, known as provisional ballots, or they had to leave and return later.

Why did it take so long to get the electronic results in Montgomery County, when past elections have produced results within an hour or so of the polls closing?

At each polling place, election officials had to shut down each electronic voting machine and print out results to create a record of the votes. They also had to take the data from each machine and feed the information into another machine, known as the accumulator, which tabulated and printed out results for each precinct. Then the results were sent via modem to a central computer at election headquarters on Twinbrook Parkway in Rockville.

Extended voting hours were supposed to make up for some of the disruption experienced early Tuesday. But there was also confusion about when and how votes could be cast late in the evening. The electronic machines were not supposed to accept ballots from people in line after 8 p.m., and those voters were supposed to cast provisional ballots, said election spokeswoman Marjorie Roher. At the same time, vote tabulating was not to begin until provisional balloting ended about 9 p.m. But in some precincts, election judges -- volunteers who receive a stipend of $125 to $150 a day -- shut down electronic voting and began tabulating while paper balloting continued.

Did all the results get printed out in the precincts?

It's not clear. Montgomery officials say the county Board of Elections received from the state only about half of the 820 printers needed at the county's 238 precincts.

How many paper provisional ballots were used Tuesday?

Montgomery election officials say they do not know. But Roher said 10,000 to 12,000 provisional ballots were cast, and the board has received about 6,000 absentee ballots.

Election board member Samuel L. Statland said the board had to print additional provisional ballots twice Tuesday because the first run included a printing error. He said the eight or nine polling stations he visited Tuesday evening had enough provisional ballots, but others were not supplied with enough paper ballots for the hour of extra voting.

Votes recorded on photocopied ballots or other pieces of paper will have to be copied onto official ballots, Statland said, so they can be electronically scanned during the counting that begins Monday.

Are county officials satisfied with the election board's response Tuesday?

Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), who chairs the committee that supervises the election board, has scheduled a hearing at the County Council building at 9 a.m. Monday. Other county officials, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), are calling for the resignations of election board President Nancy Dacek, a Republican appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and top administrator Margaret Jurgensen, a county employee.

When will paper ballots be counted?

Montgomery County will count absentee ballots beginning today. It is not clear how long it will take to count them. Provisional ballots will not be counted until Monday. Roher said the schedule is mandated by state law. The ballots are kept locked up at the county election board. They were delivered there yesterday by elections judges and county workers, many using private vehicles.

If Montgomery County finishes the absentee count before Monday, could officials begin counting provisional ballots immediately?

Roher said the answer is no. State law requires that it start Monday, she said.

Did the change to an electronic system cause other problems at polling places?

County election judges were unfamiliar with the new electronic registration system -- which provides printed forms for voters to sign -- and they had received only a few hours of training. That might have contributed to problems at some polling places, officials and voters said. About 25 permanent employees work for the election board year-round, and 40 to 80 staff members are added during election season.

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