Maryland primary election: Pests, provisional ballots and other problems

Confusion over provisional ballots, voters redirected to different sites and a mouse and flea infestation marred Tuesday’s primary election.

Causing particular outrage and suspicion was the last-minute revelation on Monday that the registration details of as many as 80,000 voters were caught up in a computer glitch at the Motor Vehicle Administration, leaving those who wanted to participate to cast provisional ballots, which will not be counted until next week. The problem mostly affected voters who tried to change their addresses or party affiliation through the MVA.

“This is way too smelly,” said Sarah Landon, 57, of Tilghman Island. “I still want evidence that it was just a clerical error. When something like this happens on five o'clock the day before an election where they're expecting high turnout, I have every right to be suspicious.”

Maryland primary 2018: Election results »

A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said he had ordered “a comprehensive review of the situation,” and directed MVA leaders to make themselves available for legislative hearings.

“What matters most is that every eligible voter will be able to vote, and every vote will be counted,” spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.

Tracey Frey was given a provisional ballot at Hereford High School — even though she hadn’t changed her address or party affiliation, through the MVA or any other channel.

“We’ve been there 10 years, and I always vote,” the Baltimore County woman said. “I believe my vote will be counted, [but] with the excitement of the day, you’d like to be counted now.”

MVA officials attributed the problem to a computer glitch that began in April 2017, when new software was installed on the agency’s website and walk-up kiosks. Changes of address or affiliation were not relayed to the Board of Elections, officials said.

State lawmakers pledged to investigate what went wrong. The ACLU declared itself “deeply concerned,” and directed voters to a hotline for guidance.

Delays, faulty scanners and other problems were reported throughout the day. Candidates and election officials scrambled on the ground and on social media to make sure voters got to the right polling places or could at least return later to cast their ballots.

Voting machines at the Baltimore IT Academy were not set up when the polls opened at 7 a.m., and dozens of voters were turned away. A circuit judge ordered voting extended for an hour in the three precincts that were affected.

Voters who went to Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton in West Baltimore to cast their ballots were redirected to James Mosher Elementary School around the corner. Friendship Academy — previously Calverton Elementary/Middle School — has been closed since early January, when cold weather caused plumbing and heating problems.

“There’s obviously some type of disconnect between the Baltimore City Public Schools system as well as our Board of Elections, and the community wasn’t notified,” said Del. Antonio Hayes.

Several voters at James Mosher said they were not notified of the change until Tuesday. They said the lack of communication about the move was especially troubling given the concentration of senior citizens in the neighborhood.

“We have seniors that don’t necessarily have cars, and this is how you treat them?” asked Pam Ranberg, a 68-year-old Democrat. “We’ve been bombarded all week with robo-calls about who to vote for.

“I think our dear mayor maybe needed to take a minute from getting on Facebook bragging about what she’s doing and have sent a message so that the seniors around here would have got some better service.”

Linwood Woody, a 65-year-old Democrat, said he didn’t learn the polling place had been moved until he arrived at Friendship Preparatory Academy.

“I’m totally stunned, really,” he said. “I think they should have people walking the neighborhood and telling people where the polling place for this general area is.”

Armstead Jones, the city’s elections director, said his office began receiving reports of mice and fleas at Patapsco Elementary/Middle School in Cherry Hill at about 1 p.m. He said he sent an exterminator, but then decided to move the polling operation to Carter G. Woodson Elementary/Middle, half a mile away. There were two voters at Patapsco at the time, he said, and they made their way to the new one. Staff put up signs to direct voters to Woodson.

City school officials said in a statement that the complaint about mice was based on one person’s account and their inspectors found no signs of rodents. Officials said the insects got into the school when an exterior door was left open for trash removal. No pest problems were reported in the building in the last weeks of school, the officials said.

There were reports of a broken machine at Roosevelt Recreation Center in Hampden. Voter Joseph Martorella said no one had cast a ballot an hour after the polls opened. He said officials said ballots could be placed in an “emergency bin” to be dealt with later.

The 40-year-old grocery store manager said he left his ballot there, but would have liked to see it entered into the system before leaving.

“I am trusting the election officials to process it,” he said. “But that’s obviously not the ideal situation.”

There was also at least one last-minute switch in polling places in Baltimore County: Elections officials there said the Essex Co-Op had lost power, and redirected voters to Eastern Technical High School.

A small fire forced election officials to temporarily close the poll at the Fullerton Community Center in Baltimore County. Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames, and the location was opened after about 45 minutes, said Donna Duncan, assistant deputy administrator for the state Board of Elections.

"Once the smoke cleared they were able to continue to vote," Duncan said.

A pulled fire alarm in Howard County, a power outage at the Oakland Armory in Garrett County, road paving in front of a polling location in Garrett County and a burst pipe in Baltimore also caused delays.

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Holly Mirabella, 28, said election workers at Margaret Brent Elementary School in Baltimore’s Charles Village seemed ill-prepared. Mirabella, an attorney, said she changed her address in late May to make sure she could vote in the primary. But on Monday, she received an email from the state saying she was one of the 80,000 who would have to vote provisionally.

She asked the election worker who checked her in for a provisional ballot, she said, but he didn’t seem to be aware of the problem. She was sent from poll worker to poll worker before ending up at a separate table for provisional voters — and was surprised to learn she had to fill out an application for the ballot.

As she filled it out, she said, a poll worker told her this is why people should not make any changes during an election year.

“I was scared I was not going to be able to vote,” she said. “I was starting to get really worried because they seemed incompetent.”

Mirabella wondered if voters who are less proficient in English or don’t follow the news closely might have left their polling places without casting a ballot.

“I’m really worried about other folks,” she said. “I don’t think you could call this a fair election.”

The League of Women Voters of Maryland urged citizens “not to be deterred” and to submit provisional ballots.

“The failure of the Motor Vehicle Administration to forward to the Board of Elections information on nearly 80,000 voters is of grave concern to the League of Women Voters,” the group said in a statement. “A citizen’s right to vote is too important to be put at risk by administrative error. We call on the Governor and Maryland General Assembly to thoroughly investigate this matter, determine the causes, and take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again.

“Of immediate importance is that voters not be deterred from voting due to this reported problem. Voters should take advantage of Maryland’s system of provisional voting, which is a safeguard against potential errors in voter registration data,” the group said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger, Sarah Meehan, Liz Bowie and Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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