MONTGOMERY COUNTY, the largest and by some measures the wealthiest county in Maryland, prides itself as a leader. So why is it a perennial laggard when it comes to reporting election results?
Most election years, most of the state’s tally has been more or less wrapped up before the count in Montgomery. That was the case again last month, when the county didn’t get around to posting its returns for more than two hours after the winner of the gubernatorial contest, Republican Larry Hogan, had declared victory.
Results are results, and the state doesn’t issue official ones until the morning after Election Day, so it’s possible to dismiss as irrelevant Montgomery’s slowest-in-class performance. But when one jurisdiction — in this case, the most populous — is consistently the slowpoke, people may start to wonder, and maybe grow suspicious — especially when no one can provide an explanation.
It has nothing to do with Montgomery’s population or voter turnout, as state and local election officials acknowledge. While there are more precincts and polling places in Montgomery than in other counties, a polling station is a polling station — that is, one in Montgomery shouldn’t take longer to close down and render results than one in another county. Yet scores of Montgomery’s stations report results later than their counterparts elsewhere.
It doesn’t seem to have much to do with Montgomery’s geographic size, either. Results from most polling stations are reported by computers using modems; WiFi is deemed insecure. If that doesn’t work, election officials can hand-deliver the tally to the county’s central election office in Gaithersburg, which, being centrally located, is not a very long drive at night — 30 minutes at most — from most of the county’s 259 precincts.
A few places, such as Baltimore County, have satellite electoral offices where results can be hand-delivered, perhaps a little more quickly than they can be to the central office in Montgomery.
Still, procedures for closing polling stations and counting and reporting ballots are standard across the state. No one — neither local nor state elections officials — understands what the problem is in Montgomery.
More worrisome is the fact that it may get worse rather than better for the election in 2016. The state is introducing new election equipment, including an optical scan system and paper ballots to replace touch screens. Although the system hasn’t been tested, the paper ballots may delay reporting, officials acknowledge. And if they’re delayed across the state, will they be delayed even more in Montgomery?
The County Council is looking into the matter, with a hearing scheduled for February. It needs answers to why Montgomery trails the pack, and it needs solutions, whether it’s better training for election judges assigned to each polling place or better leadership atop the county’s election board.
The public’s confidence is critical to any electoral system. When one county lags all others, confidence is subverted.
Read more about this topic:
The Post’s View: The Maryland elections board shouldn’t create an unfair competition
The Post’s View: A messy situation in Montgomery may prod Maryland to reform how judges are selected
The Post’s View: Montgomery County’s perverse politics
Phil Andrews: Public financing of elections can revitalize democracy