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

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."

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company