Baltimore City isn't the only jurisdiction in Maryland that has been known to have problems on election day. In the 2010 gubernatorial primary, some poll workers in Baltimore County forgot to remove memory cards from voting machines, delaying the results. In the 2006 primary, some Montgomery County polls opened late because of no-show judges, and some Prince George's votes went uncounted for days. In 1998, election machine breakdowns and a shortage of technicians delayed the reporting of results in Baltimore County.
But the problems in the city are more consistent and worse than those anywhere else. (Indeed, in all the instances listed above, Baltimore City had similar issues but on a bigger scale.) The errors that have prompted the state Board of Elections to take the unusual step of forcing the de-certification of the results of last month's mayoral primary — most troublingly, the fact that the number of votes registered was larger than the number of people who checked in with election judges — are just the latest in a decades-long pattern of late-opening polls, unprepared judges, tabulation problems and technical errors.
We'll grant city election officials that their job isn't an easy one. As a 2014 report from the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center For Public Policy put it, "Imagine if everyone with a driver's license had to had to renew that license on the same day or if all taxpayers had to pay their taxes in person on a single day." In Baltimore, the job involves recruiting and training well more than 1,000 people to do a task that involves no small amount of complexity. The switch-over to a new voting system this year compounded the problem, as likely did the Hogan administration's decision to cut funds designated to instruct voters on how to use the new paper ballots. In Baltimore, the task of staffing all polling places with both Democratic and Republican judges is more difficult than in other parts of the state because of the paucity of Republicans in the city.
But elections aren't a surprise. We know when they're coming, and there is simply no excuse for such consistent failures. The problems didn't start with current city elections chief Armstead Jones Sr., but a decade into his tenure, there is reason to question whether he can fix them. His acknowledgment that he was aware of the discrepancy between voters and votes but planned "to resolve this and reconcile all the paperwork before the state took this action," nor does his inability to recall where the 80 unanalyzed provisional ballots his office found had been cast. His board had already certified the results. Mr. Jones blames the state board of elections for "changing all the rules and procedures" and providing an outdated manual, but somehow the rest of the state managed to work it out. Why not Baltimore City?
Given the history, our first assumption has to be that the issues stem from errors rather than fraud, but either way, we are glad to see the state board step in. Even if the review doesn't change any of the results — and given the margins involved in the mayoral and City Council primaries, we would be surprised if it did — city residents need to have confidence that their votes are being counted correctly.
But the state board should not stop its involvement there. In 2006, when Baltimore had massive problems with late-opening polls and malfunctioning equipment, among other things, state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone ordered the city to come up with a 10-point plan for improvement before the general election that included new training and recruitment procedures and improved election day protocols. Legislative auditors closely monitored the city's performance, issuing weekly reports on its progress until the November election. To be sure, Ms. Lamone's office should investigate whether the requirement to have at least two Republican judges in each precinct is truly an impediment in the city and if so to explore alternatives — for example, allowing some judges who are unaffiliated or members of the Green or Libertarian parties to satisfy the law's requirements for minority party judges. But that does already happen sometimes in practice, and it's hardly the only issue. The state needs to look at a wide range of issues from election-day management and communication to whether the city really needs 296 different precincts.
Just shrugging this year's problems off as the kind of thing that happens in big cities is unacceptable. Baltimore's voters deserve to have elections that are just as well run as those in any other part of the state.