Maryland, D.C. election officials finalize primary counts; D.C. turnout better than it seemed

By Mike DeBonis
Monday, September 27, 2010; 10:06 PM

Election officials in the District have completed ballot counts for the Sept. 14 primary elections, and Maryland officials have moved closer to doing the same.

The District

District election officials added more than 9,000 ballots to the final count Friday, representing absentee ballots and the city's first-ever ballots cast by same-day registrants.

The final tallies did not appreciably change results in any race, including the marquee Democratic matchup between incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. With all ballots counted, Gray won 72,648 votes (54.3 percent), to Fenty's 59,524 (44.5 percent).

With the new ballots counted, Fenty decreased the margin by only a tenth of a percentage point.

Election Day reports that D.C. turnout was light were not borne out by the final numbers. Under the traditional measure of election turnout - the percentage of registered Democrats who cast ballots - turnout rose slightly from the last mayoral primary election, from 37 percent to 40 percent. But because the 2008 election cycle saw a great surge in the number of registered voters, driven by interest in the presidential race, that small percentage rise hides a great leap in the raw number of votes cast - from 106,288 in the Democratic primary to 134,342, a 26.4 percent jump.

That is the most ballots cast in a D.C. mayoral primary since 1994, when Marion Barry beat D.C. Council member John Ray and incumbent Sharon Pratt to return for a fourth term. More than 143,000 city Democrats cast ballots in that election - 52 percent of the rolls.

In 2006, election officials counted about 3,000 provisional ballots, representing about 2.7 percent of ballots cast. This year, that figure jumped to 6,831, or 5 percent - a rise election officials attribute to the debut of same-day registration. Under city law, all same-day registrants were required to cast provisional ballots, which are subject to later review by election officials.

Despite the rise, the number of absentee and provisional ballots still was smaller than the victory margins in any of the contested races.

Although more than 3,400 residents attempted same-day registration, only about 60 percent were actually counted. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics rejected the remainder, which were cast by voters who provided insufficient proof of residence or who voted outside their home precinct on Election Day. Another 2,584 provisional ballots were rejected because they were cast by those who attempted to vote the ballot of a party they had not previously affiliated with.

The board voted to certify the election results Monday, setting off a 36-day rush to the Nov. 2 general election. That interim period is the subject of some controversy; a 2009 federal law mandates that voters living overseas, including members of the military, be given 45 days to receive and return absentee ballots.

Starting next week, election officials are set to debut a new "digital vote-by-mail" system that allows overseas voters to cast ballots via the Internet. But that initiative is also the source of some controversy: A pair of letters questioning the legality and security of the process was sent last week to Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), the council member who oversees city elections.

One letter, signed by watchdog group Common Cause and two other election nonprofit groups, questions whether the new system complies with a new city law requiring "voter-verifiable" ballots. The second letter, signed by 13 experts in computer science and election law, raises sharp concerns about the new system's vulnerability to hacker infiltration, calling it a "poorly conceived experiment" that "imperils the overall accuracy of every election on the ballot."

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