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Officials investigate long lines at polls

State officials are investigating complaints about long lines at polls that left some voters waiting for two hours on Election Day despite lower than expected turnout.

Baltimore elections officials and the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also received complaints from voters who said they cast a ballot in the 2008 election but found that their names were not listed on voter rolls Tuesday. State elections officials plan to investigate each of the roughly dozen cases identified. The ACLU plans to write a report and recommend a solution.

Elections officials also fielded a complaint about an Owings Mills precinct moved from a fire station to a Christian church, creating problems for members of the area's Orthodox Jewish community who are not permitted to enter other houses of worship, the complainant told officials.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the national Orthodox Union organization, said Orthodox Jews are strictly prohibited from entering a church's sanctuary, but teachings differ on whether a church hall is also prohibited. Regardless, Weinreb said, many Orthodox Jews are uncomfortable in a church.

State laws allow people to request another precinct for religious reasons, said Ross Goldstein, deputy director of elections. Most complaints to the State Board of Elections, he said, involved the lines that snaked around precincts and caused hours-long waits.

"I think the troubling part is: Why were the lines so long?" Goldstein said.

Seven statewide ballot issues, including measures that drew a barrage of advertising and touched on broad social issues, led officials to predict and prepare for 80 percent of voters to cast a ballot. Turnout for early voting and Election Day combined was 68 percent, lower than in the 2008 and 2004 elections.

At Old Court Middle School in Baltimore County, there was a 21/2-hour wait for one precinct, while the line moved swiftly for the second precinct in the same school, ACLU investigators found.

"Particularly for a first-time voter, I wouldn't want them to be deterred from voting" in the future, said Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. He said he heard of long lines at polls, including Chapel Hill Elementary School and Halstead Academy, in his district.

Baltimore elections director Armstead Jones said it's too soon to say what caused the long waits and shortages in provisional ballots.

"We hire people for a one-day job," Jones said. "All it takes is one person who knows what to do not to show up, and people are lost."

Meanwhile, about 20 workers spent Election Day distributing supplies and additional ballots to Baltimore precincts after more voters than expected needed to cast provisional ballots.

"A lot of county residents were coming to vote in the city," Jones said, adding that he had not yet fully investigated the problem. "Of course, they're a registered voter in Maryland. We gave them a provisional ballot."

The provisional ballots are counted after the electronic votes are tabulated and after elections officials verify a voter's registration status.

The experience of Christopher Lochner of Hereford might illustrate what happened in some cases this year, when for the first time in decades, several state laws were petitioned to referendum. Lochner unhappily cast a provisional ballot at his usual precinct Tuesday after poll workers couldn't find him in the poll books, even though he voted there in the April primary.

"They could not find me in the election rolls at all, even though I have a driver's license and a voter ID card. They let me vote provisionally," Lochner said. "It's nearly meaningless. I don't want to say it is meaningless, but the election is already called by the time they count it."

After he complained, Lochner said elections officials explained that his registration had been changed to another precinct when his name appeared on a petition — a legally binding document — with a different address. While he doesn't remember putting down the friend's address where he is now registered, he does remember signing petitions without a second thought to the consequences.

"Even if I put the North Pole, I wouldn't think that it would revert to that [address]," he said. "I didn't know that if I signed it ... someone would look at it and say, 'His address is different, let's change some records.'"

Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich and Andrea Siegel contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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