State will allow public to watch Baltimore election review, which focuses on 60 precincts

In the review of Baltimore's primary, irregularities at 60 precincts are being examined.

State officials say they are focusing on about 60 precincts in their review of irregularities in Baltimore's primary election — a process they agreed Tuesday night to open to the public after a judge was asked to intervene.

The elections officials had worked behind closed doors Tuesday as the state investigates why the number of votes in the city's April 26 primary was higher than the number of people who checked in at the polls. Officials allowed reporters and campaign representatives to observe the process for about an hour, but then closed the proceedings.

Late Tuesday, Sheila Dixon's mayoral campaign sought a temporary restraining order seeking to halt the review unless the public was allowed access. At an evening hearing before Baltimore Circuit Judge Althea M. Handy, attorneys for the state and the campaign agreed that the public will be allowed in for the duration of the state's review. Observers will be required to remain in a designated area that was used Tuesday.

Dixon said the agreement was fair.

"There is no reason for any part of the vote certification process to be kept hidden from the public," she said in a statement Tuesday night.

Linda H. Lamone, the administrator of the elections board, had said the review was private because the warehouse where it is being conducted is a secure building with private voter information inside and the review is a "reconciliation" of data and not a public canvass.

"We are not counting any votes," she said. "We are doing a reconciliation of the election-related documents."

Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy administrator at the State Board of Elections, said Tuesday the 60 precincts under scrutiny are located throughout Baltimore. The issues in those precincts — about a fifth of Baltimore's 296 precincts — are "significantly larger" than in other jurisdictions, she said.

State officials did not provide a list of the precincts in question.

Charlson said the state was still working to determine the exact size of the problem, but she believed the discrepancy between votes and check-ins to be smaller than 2,400 — the difference in votes between state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who was declared winner of the Democratic primary for mayor, and her closest rival, Dixon.

"This process isn't going to change the winners" of the mayor's race, Charlson said. But the outcomes of several close council races could be at issue, she said.

Workers from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties have joined city and state officials in sifting through election documents in the West Baltimore warehouse. Last week, state election officials ordered the results of Baltimore's primary election decertified and launched the precinct-level review.

Charlson said about one-quarter of check-in slips at the polls have been examined. She said officials hoped to conclude their review by the end of the week and expected to present some findings to the State Board of Elections on Thursday. The city and state election boards — both composed of three Republicans and two Democrats — were appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan after he took office last year.

For several weeks, activists and candidates have raised concerns about the integrity of the primary in Baltimore. Eight data files went missing for about a day after the election, and some polling precincts opened late. And 34 released felons — eligible to vote under a new law — received a Board of Elections letter before the primary erroneously telling them they might not be able to vote.

Derrick Lennon, a Democratic candidate for the 5th City Council District in Northwest Baltimore who went to the warehouse Tuesday, said he encountered numerous problems on Election Day.

"There were a number of precincts that opened late. There was one precinct, Langston Hughes, that turned away voters," he said. "Whether or not these counts are right, there's still a lot of concern about that."

Lennon said he worried that the review wouldn't fix problems with the election.

"I don't think this will accomplish anything," Lennon said. "What does this show us? I don't think this will assure the common voter that their vote counted. We have a hard enough time convincing people to come out and vote, and then to have all these irregularities, it's just frustrating."

Reginald "Reggie" Fugett, a Democratic candidate in the 8th City Council District in Southwest Baltimore, also visited the warehouse to observe the review.

"We can't let this sort of thing happen again in the general election," he said. "This gives people a reason not to vote because they will believe their vote wasn't counted."

He said he observed several problems in his district, including election judges openly favoring certain candidates and withholding information from his campaign.

"I don't know if it's anything malicious or if it's incompetence by the judges," Fugett said. "All I know is things were not done in a professional way. The process is being challenged and that's a scary thing."

City Councilman Robert W. Curran said the council planned to summon the city's Board of Elections to answer questions about its budget and the way the election was handled.

"They should allow transparency," Curran said of the review. "I plan to ask them questions about the paper ballots. I plan to ask about the irregularities."

State elections officials have said the discrepancy between the number of checked-in voters and number of ballots cast appears to have occurred because voters or election judges scanned provisional ballots at polling places rather than setting them aside for inspection later. Provisional ballots are given to residents who don't show up on a precinct's rolls and might not be eligible to vote.

Charlson said Tuesday it could prove impossible to figure out which of those provisional ballots represent legitimate votes — and it's possible that illegitimate votes could stand in the official count.

Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

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