Montgomery County residents may face long lines at the polls on Election Day and access for Spanish-speaking voters could be hampered, despite hasty fixes made since the fiasco debut of computerized voting machines last month, according to a report released yesterday.
Confusion over the new touch-screen machines, poorly trained workers, staffing shortages and communication breakdowns caused the Sept. 10 primary day meltdown that delayed Montgomery ballot results until after 2 a.m.
Even though computer modems will be set up in more than 200 polling places to speed returns and more than 130 election judges who had trouble operating the machines have been retrained, a County Council staff report says that those measures may not be enough given the far greater turnout expected for the Nov. 5 general election.
"This increased volume of voters may cause delays at the polls, even if all other aspects of the election run according to the board's action plan," the report says.
Appearing before the council's Management and Fiscal Policy Committee yesterday, elections officials acknowledged that they still lack more than 300 judges to supervise the polls next month -- mostly Republican, independent and bilingual judges. About 20 percent of the 2,800 people who served on primary day have decided not to return. Board of Elections Director Margaret A. Jurgensen said that elections officials were working with more than a dozen businesses who have agreed to lend their employees for poll duty for the day. Several hundred county employees -- who will be given "civil leave" for the day and also receive the election judge stipend of from $100 to $130 -- will also be tapped, she said.
"There is clearly room for major improvement," said County Council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville). "I am very hopeful we'll see that improvement in two weeks on general Election Day."
Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) defended the board, saying he felt that officials were doing what they could to rectify the problems. "It's a daunting task," Denis said. "It's a realistic assessment to anticipate that there will be lines. . . . People should be patient or apply for an absentee ballot." The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot by mail or fax is Oct. 29, but voters can also file for one in person up to Election Day.
A far different issue is how well the county will meet new federal mandates for non-English-speaking voters, which requires that bilingual ballots, signs and registration forms be supplied if a jurisdiction has significant numbers of voting-age citizens who do not speak English well.
Officials are concerned about a recent report by the University of Maryland law school's Civil Rights Clinic, which said that Montgomery failed its 100,000-plus Latino residents by not complying with the federal requirements.
On primary day, law students observing seven polling places said they found "multiple violations" of the Voting Rights Act's language-access provisions. According to second-year law student Leslie Lobos, Spanish assistance was not offered at any of those locations, some written materials were only in English and some poll officials made discriminatory remarks.
Lobos quoted one chief judge as saying: "These people are here. They're voting. Why don't they speak English?"
Jurgensen said that the board "vigorously disagrees" with the clinic's findings. The board learned only in July that Montgomery's Spanish-speaking population was large enough to require the county to comply with that provision of the Voting Rights Act, she said, and it quickly made new signs and bilingual instructional brochures. On Election Day, 47 precincts are set to have bilingual staffing, up from 14 during the primary.
Latino activists say they will consider filing a federal civil rights lawsuit depending on the county's performance at the polls Nov. 5.
"Denying the problem is a very bad first step," said Kim Propeack, a staff attorney with CASA de Maryland, an advocacy and support group for low-income Latinos. "What we heard is denial, denial, denial."
Overhauling Maryland's voting system was the General Assembly's response to the Florida ballot count that delayed the results of the 2000 presidential election for weeks. State budget officials decided to replace outdated systems in Montgomery, Prince George's, Allegany and Dorchester counties by this fall and to install computerized voting machines statewide by 2006.
Although the machines' inaugural run was relatively smooth in the other counties, confusion reigned in Montgomery: Several polling places opened late because the equipment was not set up. Inaccurate results were posted on the county Web site, while judges struggled through complicated forms and tabulation. Instead of sending results by modem, poll workers had to drive computer disks across the county to the elections board in Rockville and faced long lines upon arrival.
Jurgensen told the council committee that the judges' retraining is progressing and that the county has reduced the paperwork they will have to do while closing the polls. Results will be sent in by modem at all but a couple dozen of the 237 polling stations, and the county has tapped its own employees to increase the number of technical support personnel on hand from 205 to 270.
But some experienced judges are skeptical that the board's changes are enough and contend that there should be far more retraining. Jurgensen told the council committee that for future elections, election judges should be required to have eight hours of training instead of four.
More than 270,000 Montgomery voters are expected to cast ballots in two weeks, double the primary turnout.
"I think they're going to have some problems," predicted Kenneth Coffey, who has served as a chief judge for several Montgomery elections. He wonders whether the retraining has focused mainly on paperwork questions and not computer nitty-gritty.
"If that's the case, those who have been retraining haven't really gained very much," he said. "It's going to be interesting, to say the least."