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Baltimore elections: 'stuff happens' isn't good enough

Baltimore needs to stop shrugging off its persistent problems at the polls.

Back in 2000, the state of Florida became an international laughingstock over its difficulties tallying ballots. Baltimore has escaped that ignominy so far this year only because the fate of a presidential election is not in the balance. But the difficulty of its elections specialists in tallying ballots from April 26 is just as unforgiveable as was Florida's.

Baltimore, we've got a problem here — and it did not begin with this election cycle. As The Sun recently reported, what we have experienced is in many ways déjà vu all over again. Still, a history of persistent problems does not mean the future has to be fraught with them, too — especially the predictable ones like too few and poorly trained election judges who are ultimately responsible for the smooth operation of more than 200 polling places and the delivery of voting results after the polls close.

Voting should not be a disheartening experience, as it apparently was for an untold number of would-be voters on April 26. I have heard from various sources that some people gave up after finding that their polling places were not open at 7 a.m. Others found that they were listed as a member of a party they had not chosen. Some people were given the wrong ballots. Some poll workers were pressed into service as election judges. We know from what officials have said that there was a marked discrepancy between the number of people who signed in at some polling places and the number of ballots recorded.

Some officials, like state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, have been dismissive of those who have sounded the alarm about irregularities in the process. "It's just like sour grapes," she has said. And Armstead B.C. Jones, the director of the Board of Elections, has circled the wagons. "I refuse to let anybody indict this board," he has said.

Even if the state's review of Baltimore's troubling April 26 performance confirms the preliminary outcomes of mayoral and City Council races, the problems that have surfaced should not be swept under a rug. Scrutiny may be inconvenient, but it is long overdue.

"They haven't put any failsafe measures in place to prevent reoccurrence," says J. Wyndal Gordon, a lawyer for a coalition of voters who have challenged what happened in the primaries, "and so these elections are becoming progressively worse, and they just serve it up to the citizens as if we are supposed to accept it."

Those days of acceptance must end. To let matters languish, with the same people in place with the same attitudes at the board is to invite further disaster in November and to accomplish, even if unintended, the same sort of voter suppression that we see in states like North Carolina and Texas. Freed from some of the federal scrutiny mandated by the Voting Rights Act after a 2013 Supreme Court decision, these states seem to be going out of their way to place roadblocks in the paths of the poor, the elderly, racial minorities, and even college students.

Here in Baltimore, where thousands of ex-offenders were newly enfranchised in March and eligible to vote in the primaries, somebody at the elections board sent out letters — at least 34 — telling ex-offenders that they were ineligible, or, as Mr. Jones said, their applications were "inadvertently processed based on an old procedure." Some of that damage was contained by groups like Maryland United, the No Boundaries Coalition and B.U.I.L.D. (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) ferrying people, including ex-offenders, to the polls and making sure they were able to cast ballots. During early voting people were able to register on the spot.

Ray Kelly of the No Boundaries Coalition says, "It all comes down to training." That's largely true: From election officials to ordinary citizens there needs to be a whole lot of tutoring between now and November. But there also needs to be better recruitment and training for election judges, who are essentially paid "volunteers." For the experience and the $165 to $225 for working at a poll, political science students at all our institutions of higher learning and even garden variety policy wonks should be encouraged to send in their applications.

Something has got to change. "Stuff happens" shrugs are not good enough.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

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