When the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics opened its doors -- an hour late -- yesterday morning to hear the appeals of voters who had been disqualified in the Sept. 14 primary, D.C. Republican National Committeewoman Pat Bruns was among the first to give the officials a piece of her mind.
"You're obviously not in control here. . . This whole thing has been a disaster," she burst out at William H. Lewis, the board's general counsel. She came armed with her voter registration card--proof that she should not have been disqualified for failing to register. Lewis apologized for the board's apparent error and promised Bruns that her vote would indeed be counted.
This was the scene again and again at the elections board office in the District Building yesterday: frustration and anger from disqualified voters, and patient apologies from election officials, as close to 250 people either called or showed up in person to appeal their challenged ballots.
Like Bruns, nearly everyone who protested the challenges -- some with gallows humor -- turned out to be legitimately registered upon further research by the elections board -- a finding that seemed to further fuel voter outrage.
"What is essentially the problem, Mr. Lewis? . . . Is it incompetence?" asked an exasperated Robert Fink, a researcher whose ballot was challenged despite the fact that he, too, has a voter registration card.
"I don't know. Somebody goofed," Lewis told him.
The board's actions are not expected to change the results of any primary races.
While problem-plagued election officials grappled with the challenges to their challenges, the board yesterday announced the appointment of a temporary executive director, who will be responsible for smoothing out election procedures for the Nov. 2 general election. He is David A. Splitt, 36, who is currently director of the D.C. Office of Documents.
Splitt will replace Teddy Filosofos, who resigned as the election board's executive director effective tomorrow because of what he said was too much political interference to run an efficient election. Filosofos maintained it would take him at least another 18 months to correct the office's long-standing problems.
On Monday, the board published in The Washington Post the names of 5,017 of the 124,000 primary voters whose ballots the board had disqualified because no voter registration card could be found for them, they had supplied insufficient information on their challenged ballots, or for other reasons.
By yesterday, when appeals to the board were scheduled to be heard in person, more than 400 people had either called or gone to the elections board office to protest the board's action. Many muttered about having to take off from work.
Some of the citizens who made appeals said that they had been voting here ever since elections were first held in the District in 1956.
But what seemed to bind them all -- from the retired State Department cleaning woman to the 19-year-old unemployed youth voting for the first time -- was a sense that a sacred right was being wrongfully denied them.
"It's very important that my vote be counted because your right to vote -- to me -- is one of the greatest things in this country," said James Johnson, a boiler operator at the Washington Navy Yard. "You can pull a person's coattails if you vote for him and you don't like the job he's doing," added Johnson, who maintained he is a legitimate voter.
Frances M. Rainbow, who uses a wheelchair, told elections board member Jeannine S. Clark that she had packed a lunch and would stay at the elections office all day if necessary to get her ballot problem solved.
"You know how long your people had to wait for the franchise," she told Clark, who is black. "Well, we handicapped people had been disenfranchised for a long time because we couldn't get up the steps" at polling places. Rainbow was one of the few persons yesterday who lost an appeal because election officials could find no record for her.
"I really didn't appreciate seeing my name in the paper. To me it was embarrassing and degrading," said Dorothy Cummings, a visiting nurse who said she took time off from her work to clear up the mistake.
Like most of the other ballots appealed, her vote was counted because her name was found on a master computerized voter list, although it did not appear in the main card file.
Election officials say the errors on the disqualification list are directly related to the city's being unable, despite numerous attempts, to compile a complete and accurate voter card file or computerized voter list.
Attorney William Mayo Lee wearily told the board he has voted a challenged ballot every year since 1978, all because the board showed him living at 1808 19th St. NW instead of his home at 1708 19th St. NW.
"I've registered to vote at least five times" trying to straighten out the record, Lee said. The board counted his vote, but asked him -- like everyone who came in -- to fill out yet another registration card. "I just want a voter card," he said, taking the registration form for what he said was the sixth time.
"This should go down in 'Ripley's Believe It or Not,' " joked Johnson, the boiler operator.