As Ballot Tally Starts, Montgomery Interrogated
Monday, September 18, 2006
Maryland's elections chief is demanding a full accounting of what went wrong in Montgomery County's primary election last week and asking for a detailed plan by Wednesday to ensure the same mistakes do not occur in November.
State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone sent the letter on Saturday to Montgomery officials, who today will begin counting thousands of provisional ballots that could determine the outcome of several local races. Election officials will also appear before a County Council committee this morning to answer questions on the electronic voting problems that plagued the county.
Lamone sent similar letters to election directors in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties as well as Baltimore, demanding that corrective plans be put in place quickly.
"Your immediate and full-time attention to this plan of corrective action is imperative to restore public confidence in the election process prior to the General Election," Lamone said in her letter to Montgomery election director Margaret Jurgensen.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) will send top aide Bruce Romer to the 9 a.m. meeting before the council's management and fiscal policy committee to reiterate a call for Jurgensen's termination and the resignation of Nancy Dacek, the Republican appointed to lead the county's Board of Elections, Duncan spokesman David Weaver said yesterday.
At 10 a.m., the elections board will start counting the ballots. Between 10,000 and 12,000 provisional ballots were cast, largely because of a major error: Election workers forgot to supply all of the county's 238 precincts with the plastic cards needed to operate its electronic voting machines. The provisional ballots will be inspected and counted by hand -- a process that could take a few days.
Until the plastic cards arrived -- in some cases, it took hours -- election judges gave voters provisional paper ballots. The ballots were also used in the final hour of the primary after a circuit court judge ruled that the polls must remain open an additional hour because of the problems. Under federal law, provisional ballots must be used during extended voting hours.
Normally, provisional ballots are used when election officials cannot find a voter's name in the registry. Because of the chaotic circumstances last week, many Montgomery polling places ran out of provisional ballots, and in some cases voters used scraps of paper.
The elections board will transfer the information on those bits of paper to proper provisional ballots, which will then be inspected by two canvass workers and all three members of the board, spokeswoman Marjorie Roher said.
About 6,000 absentee ballots were counted last week, county officials said. They will begin inspecting the absentee ballots from outside the United States after the provisionals have been tallied. About 5,200 such ballots were mailed, but it is not known how many were returned.
A few races hang in the balance. In the District 18 House of Delegates race, Jeff Waldstreicher leads Daniel Farrington by about 400 votes. In District 19, Benjamin Kramer is ahead of Paul Griffin by fewer than 200 votes.
"The wild card is the provisional ballots," Kramer said. "At this point, I have just come to the conclusion that the die is cast, the outcome has already been determined, and now it's just a matter of waiting it out to see what happens."
Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) also remains locked in a tight race against Donna Edwards, leading her by fewer than 3,000 votes in a district that stretches from Prince George's into a slice of Montgomery. Edwards has said she will file a lawsuit because of concerns about the security of voting machines that were not returned promptly to the Prince George's elections board.
Lamone, in her letter to Jurgensen, said the mishaps in Montgomery had "catastrophic consequences" on the primary. Lamone asked her to submit a plan by Wednesday to correct the problems, including developing a process to verify the contents of the election judges' supply containers to make sure the voter access cards are there.
On Wednesday, Lamone will brief Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and other members of the state Board of Public Works about the problems.
In a letter to Prince George's election director Robert J. Antonetti Sr., Lamone ordered a plan ensuring that there are enough trained technicians and refresher training sessions for chief election judges. Lamone wrote that any judge who fails to report for training should be removed immediately.
Last week, Antonetti cited a lack of training on new equipment. "If you don't have the proper time to train people to use it, it's like giving someone a car who doesn't know how to drive," he said.
Lamone also asked Anne Arundel election director Barbara Fisher to develop similar training for her chief judges.
Lamone's toughest criticism was reserved for Baltimore election director Gene Raynor. In a 10-point directive, Lamone called for the removal of election judges who were late to the polls Tuesday and for the immediate recruitment and training of new judges for the Nov. 7 elections.