Bureaucrat Takes Blame in Vote Fiasco

Paul Valette calls the mistake
Paul Valette calls the mistake "horrifying." (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

The Montgomery County Board of Elections member stopped by to grab some M&Ms and Whoppers from the jar on Paul Valette's desk.

"No blood?" board Secretary Samuel L. Statland asked with a smile yesterday afternoon.

"Why would there be any blood?" Valette said, chuckling.

And then he sighed. After all, what Valette has faced this week isn't a laughing matter. As the county's manager of election operations, he oversaw the logistics that should have allowed voters to easily cast ballots in Tuesday's primary. Instead, it turned into one of the biggest election fiascos in Maryland history.

Workers on Valette's staff inexplicably forgot to include the plastic cards needed to cast electronic votes when they prepared green canvas bags for election judges. The mistake -- discovered 45 minutes before polling places were to open -- delayed thousands of voters and sparked calls for the top two Elections Board officials to resign or be fired.

No one has asked for Valette's resignation, perhaps because few people know who he is. He could have remained a nameless, behind-the-scenes bureaucrat while his bosses took the public heat. Instead, Valette, 59, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former District tax lawyer, is stepping forward to take responsibility.

He called the voting card mistake "horrifying."

"It's a sick kind of feeling," Valette said in his small office, lined with government manuals, in a former middle school in Rockville. "We know we busted our tails, and we know that of all the things we could have done wrong, this was one of the worst."

Valette rubbed tired-looking eyes behind his glasses. He hasn't slept much since he awoke at 3 a.m. Tuesday, he said. Just over three hours after that, the Board of Elections office phones began ringing nonstop with flustered poll workers complaining that they couldn't find the cards.

"Oh my God," Valette recalls thinking. "This is just absolutely a disaster."

Since then, his agency has been called incompetent, accused of failing its only mission in a county that prides itself on good government. But Valette remains remarkably undefensive, answering every question during a three-hour interview. "It happened in my shop, on my watch," he said. "That's the only way I know how to look at it."

He said he doesn't know how the 13,000 blue-and-white access cards got left out of the voting materials assembled in the Board of Elections warehouse last Friday. The cards should have been in the security bag, which remains zipped and fastened with a red plastic padlock until 6 a.m. on primary election day, he said.

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