At the Polls, a Mostly Smooth Day

Database Glitch in Rockville Raises Fears of Double Voting

Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; Page B01

Voters in Rockville chose city council member Susan Hoffmann yesterday as mayor in an election marred by a voting database glitch, while Bowie residents overwhelmingly endorsed Mayor G. Frederick Robinson for his fifth term as their city's leader.

Meanwhile, voters in Gaithersburg rejected two of three city council candidates who were backed by a coalition including labor union groups and the liberal advocacy organization Progressive Maryland, as well as Montgomery's county executive.

At Twinbrook Community Center polling station in Rockville, Deothea Katherine Barther displays her election-day fervor.
At Twinbrook Community Center polling station in Rockville, Deothea Katherine Barther displays her election-day fervor. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Instead, voters selected two candidates who were endorsed by the city's longtime mayor and had a history of activism: Jud Ashman, a schools advocate, and Cathy C. Drzyzgula, who had served on the city's day-laborer task force. Attorney Ryan Spiegel, who was endorsed by the mayor and the coalition, was also elected.

In a city where an immigrant day-laborer center has been a hot-button issue, Ashman and Drzyzgula want enforcement of a controversial ordinance that would make it illegal to seek work or hire workers on most city streets, sidewalks and parking areas, and they have given the day-laborer center mixed reviews. Drzyzgula also had advocated raising police salaries.

Gaithersburg, Rockville and Bowie were among six cities in Washington's Maryland suburbs that chose mayors and council members. The elections went smoothly everywhere except Rockville, where thousands of residents who had not voted were mistakenly listed as having cast absentee ballots because of a state database problem.

In Rockville, where voters were choosing a mayor and four council members, thousands of voters were mistakenly marked as having cast absentee ballots when they had not. The database error raised concerns among candidates about residents voting more than once. Voters who told poll workers that they had not cast absentee ballots were allowed to vote on the machines, and election officials said they would check to make sure there was no double voting.

The State Board of Elections, which prepares the local voter database, took the blame for the glitch that affected about 11 percent of Rockville's 29,000 registered voters.

"It was our mistake, and we'll review our procedures to make sure this type of mistake doesn't happen again," Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, said yesterday.

The confusion at polling places revived memories of widespread problems that marred the September 2006 primary. In that election, human error and technical glitches led to long lines, and some voters being turned away from polls across Montgomery County.

Rockville City Clerk Claire Funkhouser, who administers the city's elections, said the problem was discovered within minutes after the polls opened at 7 a.m., and election judges were instructed to use a back-up voting system. In a few cases, she said, voters en route to work might have opted not to wait.

The Rockville race for mayor this year was particularly hotly contested. Hoffmann ran against activists Mark Pierzchala and Drew Powell to replace outgoing three-term Mayor Larry Giammo. Hoffmann, who was supported by Giammo, said she believed voters were swayed by her experience, which included six years on the city council and five years on the planning commission.

The state's list inadvertently marked as absentee the names of voters with a home address that begins with the number five. Election judges kept track of those who showed up to vote yesterday in handwritten lists. And to ensure that voters cast only one ballot, election officials said they planned to compare the list to the names of those who actually cast absentee ballots.

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