Primary Bugs, New Glitches Fueling Jitters In Md. and Va.

At Leisure World in Silver Spring, Dorothy Bell, seated, who has macular degeneration, uses a special voting machine that has larger print. With her is her twin sister, Doris.
At Leisure World in Silver Spring, Dorothy Bell, seated, who has macular degeneration, uses a special voting machine that has larger print. With her is her twin sister, Doris. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Christian Davenport and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

As Maryland and Virginia voters prepared to decide tight races that could hinge on turnout, unusual attention was being paid yesterday to how the votes will be cast and counted, particularly in Maryland, where September's primary was marred by mechanical and human errors.

In both states, record numbers of voters were continuing to cast absentee ballots. In Maryland, a last-minute fight broke out over the deadline for mailing those ballots. Elections officials across the state delivered electronic voting machines, performed final training for election judges and vowed that the primary problems would not be repeated.

Montgomery County officials ordered a significant change to its preparations: Election judges were told to open their equipment bags last night and make sure the automated cards needed to operate the electronic voting machines were there. During the primary, the cards were mistakenly omitted, and elections officials didn't realize the gaffe until an hour before the polls were to open. That touched off a morning of chaos as officials scrambled to deliver the cards to the county's 238 precincts while the machines sat idle.

Over the weekend, some Prince George's County voters were puzzled to receive absentee ballots that appeared too large for the envelope they'd been instructed to use to mail the ballot back to the local elections board.

In the District, where Democratic mayoral nominee Adrian M. Fenty was expected to cruise to an easy victory, voter turnout was predicted to be low, and officials expected no surge in absentee ballots or Election Day problems.

As of yesterday morning, a record 191,404 voters had requested absentee ballots in Maryland, and 101,390 had been returned. The previous high for absentee requests was 137,953, in the 2004 presidential election.

Near-final numbers from the Virginia State Board of Elections yesterday showed that 131,745 voters requested absentee ballots or voted early in person this year, nearly triple the number who did so in 2002.

In Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties and in Alexandria, the number of absentee voters is on track to more than double the total from 2002, elections officials said. The trend signals not only the growing popularity of early voting, but also the likelihood of heavy turnout today, state and local election officials said.

There also have been problems in Virginia, where voters have cast a record number of absentee ballots. A computer glitch cut off Democratic U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name on the summary page of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville. Officials said it could not be fixed by today. The glitch doesn't affect the page on which voters choose the candidate, but it could cause some confusion.

On Sunday in Maryland, a group of top Democratic lawmakers joined a coalition of civil rights groups in calling for the deadline for absentee ballots to be moved from yesterday to today. The groups cited delays in delivery of the ballots -- some were mailed to voters as late as Saturday -- because of the unprecedented number requested this election. They said voters who don't get their ballots on time could be disenfranchised.

The Maryland State Board of Elections rebuffed the extension request, saying yesterday that changing regulations on the eve of today's elections would create unnecessary confusion.

"We are really adamant about not upsetting the protocol we have in place now," said Gilles W. Burger, chairman of the State Board of Elections. "I think we've imposed more changes on the ground troops this year than any single year, and we're really sensitive about them reaching a breaking point."

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