District of Columbia voters, many of whom have come to consider voting here a kind of electoral obstacle course, face one of three different ways to cast their ballots in Tuesday's general election, depending on where they live in the city.
Just covered from a confusing series vote count snafus in September's primary election, they will punch ballots with a new-fangled metal stylus in one part of the city, mark traditional paper ballots with a pen and drop them into an old fashioned cardboard ballot box in another section but feed them into a high-speed electronic counting machine in still another.
Officials of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics acknowledge that the various methods may surprise some voters. But, for the first time, the officials are providing "voter education clerks" at the city's 137 precincts to instruct voters on use of ballots.
In addition to feeding paper ballots into either a cardboard box or an electronic counting machine - as voters have done in the past - voters in Ward 5 will experiment with a stylus "punch" ballot system called Datavote. Board officials decided to use Datavote on a trial basis in one ward with an eye possibly to buying the system for the entire city.
In Wards 2 and 4, voters will mark paper ballots and feed them into electronic counting machine called Valtecs which have been used here on an experimental basis for several years in various wards.
In the remaining wards - 1, 3, 6, 7 and 8 - voters will put paper ballots into traditional cardboard ballot boxes for counting later at a centralized tabulation room downtown.
Use of voter education clerks is one of several new procedural steps instituted by the board in the wake of the September snafus to reduce voter confusion and to assure greater ballots security and reliability of the vote count.
In September, despite the board's announced hopes that the primary would run smoothly, several embarrassing snags developed.
One precinct ran out of ballots. Elections board workers failed to check for possible double voters among 2,000 absentee and challenged voters until the oversight was brought to their attention by a campaign worker. Electronic counting machines failed to "read" another 7,000 unmarked or improperly marked ballots, requiring a tedious, time-consuming hand tally.
Numerous candidates and campaign workers complaigned about precinct hanky-panky, loose ballot security, lost voter registration cards and misplaced ballots.
In the furor that followed, elections board chairwoman Shari Kharasch submitted her resignation, effective at the end of the year.
Board staff members, led by general council Winfred Mundle, immediately began drafting new, tighter procedures to head off a repeat performance in Tuesday's general election.
Among the measures were:
A "ballot accounting form" to be filled out by each precinct captain certifying the total number of blank ballots received at the precinct before the polls open, the number of absentee ballots brought to the polls, the number of challenged ballots cast, the number of spoiled ballots and the number of registered voter cards "pulled" during the day.
Certification of the condition of ballot boxes and ballot box seals by various election workers responsible for getting the boxes from the outlying precincts to the central counting room in the Pension Building downtown. A precinct official, transport driver and central counting worker all sign triplicate receipts on each ballot box.
New, more specific instructions for conduct of precinct workers and beefed-up training sessions for them.
As in past elections, armed guards will be stationed in the central counting area and D. C. police will be assigned to the polling places and to accompany drivers tranporting ballots boxes, according to chief elections administration Mary Rodgers.
D. C. Auditor Matthew Watson, directed by City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker to review elections board procedures in the wake of the September primary, said the new measures are an improvement but more is needed.
"I would want a stronger chain of custody" of the ballot boxes, he said yesterday. Also, he said, the precinct captains' ballot according procedure should be revised to permit separate accounting of the ballots picked up at midday for tabulation rather than waiting to account for them with all the others after the polls close at 8 p.m.
Arthur A. Fletcher, Republican mayoral candidate, also expressed concern about ballot security. In a letter Thursday to D.C. Police Chief Burtell Jefferson, Fletcher asked that officers assigned to polling places as "well versed in voting . . . place irregularities" and that special attention be given to prevent "unauthorized persons picking up ballot boxes."
Phil Ogilvie, a campaign worker for Democratic mayoral candidate Marion Barry and a persistent critic of the September primary, said the elections board's new safeguards are "generally good."
Ogilvie expressed reservations about the Datavote stylus "punch" system to be used in Ward 5. Instructions on Datavote use that were mailed to Ward 5 registered voters contain "unnecessarily complicated words" such as "acuate," he said, and spaces on the Datavote ballot for write-in candidates are "very, very small."
The write-in space could be a significant factor since Robert Artisst, loser to Ward 5 incumbent City Council member William Spaulding in the September Democratic primary, has mounted an elaborate write-in campaign for the general election, complete with printed write-in stickers bearing his name.
The paper stickers are considerably wider than the write-in space on the Datavote ballot, "and the placement of the stickers could create a problem," Ogilvie said.
The Datavote equipment, manufactured by Diamond International Election Services in Charlotte, N.C., consists of a collapsible aluminum voting booth and a small metal and plastic punching device into which the ballot is inserted.
The voter moves a sliding "punching arm" with an arrow along the list of candidates and then pushes the arm down when the arrow is adjacent to the candidate of his choice. A stylus attached to the punching arm pierces a printed box adjacent to the candidate's name.
The voter places the ballot in a "secrecy envelope" and drops the envelope into the ballot box. The ballots are counted later by automatic Datavote tabulator at the central counting room.
A similar write-in campaign has been organized in Ward 6 by Patricia Rice Press who narrowly lost to incumbent City Council member Nadine Winter in the September Democratic primary. Voters in Ward 6 will be using conventional paper ballots.
Elections administrator Rodgers said that if the number of write-in ballots is greater than the vote difference between the two leading candidates in the Ward 5 and Ward 6 council races, a hand count of the write-in ballots will be expedited. But that probably will not be counted until Thursday, two days after the election, she said.
The complex process of administering the election and counting the ballots will involve more than 1,200 workers in the precincts and about 100 counters, sorters and Valtec operators in the central counting room, Rodgers said.
Contrary to an earlier report in The Washington Post, voters who fail to bring their voter registration cards to the polls Tuesday will be allowed to vote a regular ballot, not a challenged ballot, as the report suggested.