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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)

Elections officials said that any voter who didn't receive an absentee ballots could still vote with a provisional ballot at his or her polling place today.

Yesterday, the Election Protection Coalition, a group of civil rights groups, filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on behalf of two voters who they said had not received the absentee ballots they requested and can't get to the polls today to vote. One requested the ballot in mid-August and cannot not get to her polling place today because she is away at college. The other lives in a nursing home and doesn't have a way to get to the polls. Judge Joseph P. Manck said in denying the petition: "What you're asking me to do is a situation that can cause more damage to the entire election than just those who you're saying may be disenfranchised."

In a letter to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) last week, the Election Protection Coalition asked for the absentee-ballot extension because of what the group called "the unfolding catastrophe regarding undelivered absentee ballots and insufficient supplies of provisional ballots."

The request was repeated by several Democratic lawmakers, who said in a letter to Ehrlich on Sunday that a failure to extend the deadline "risks the disenfranchisement of many eligible Maryland voters." The letter was signed by both Maryland senators, several members of Congress, Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert).

An Ehrlich spokesman yesterday referred questions about the letters to the Board of Elections.

He said polling places will have plenty of provisional ballots on hand. And he denied that the state would be disenfranchising voters by refusing to extend the deadline. In addition to casting a provisional ballot at the polling place, voters can go to their county's elections headquarters today and request a second absentee ballot, said Ross Goldstein, Maryland's deputy election administrator.

Elections officials have been deluged with requests for absentees in large part because of concerns about the state's electronic voting system. Ehrlich and other state leaders have called for voters to cast the paper absentee ballots to ensure their votes are counted. The large number of absentees was also fueled by a "no excuses" law, passed this year, that allows voters to request an absentee ballot without giving a reason.

Diebold Election Systems, which manufactures the state's electronic voting machines and prints the absentee ballots, told the elections board last week that it had underestimated the numbers needed. Yesterday, Diebold said it had printed more than 1.2 million absentee and provisional ballots for Maryland -- more than three times the number expected.

Another concern has been electronic poll books, which repeatedly crashed during the primary. State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone has said that the problems have been fixed and that today's election should go smoothly.

But in Calvert County, officials said they won't even try to relay election results to election headquarters via computer modem because the process slowed to a crawl during the primary. Instead, they'll enlist 23 sheriff's deputies to hand-deliver the memory cards that hold the votes from each precinct.

"It will look like a Pony Express," joked Gail L. Hatfield, Calvert's elections administrator.

Heavy demand for absentee ballots meant the state had to reorder envelopes several times, Goldstein said. Because of a production error, one order of envelopes was glued together in such a way that there was not enough open space to accommodate the ballot.

He said that 10 counties received the defective envelopes but that state officials caught the mistake within a day and instructed the counties not to distribute the envelopes. In Prince George's, some of the flawed envelopes were sent to voters.

Goldstein said any voters who received the envelope should fold their ballot -- in violation of printed rules -- slide it into the envelope and mail it anyway. Elections officials will make a duplicate ballot and count that, he said.

Staff writers Dan Morse, Amy Gardner and William Wan contributed to this report.

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