Criticism of Baltimore's election process mounted Friday as state officials closed in on an explanation of why the number of voters who checked in at the polls in last month's primary was less than the number of ballots counted.
Leaders across the city said they had serious concerns about problems that led the Maryland State Board of Elections to order city election officials to decertify the results of the primary Thursday so it could conduct a precinct-by-precinct review.
Longtime City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has worked for decades on elections in Baltimore, called the problems with the primary a tragedy.
"We emphasize the importance of a vote," she said. "And the minute we shortchange it, we shortchange everything we establish to keep this a democratic society."
The discrepancy between the number of voters and number of ballots appears to have occurred because voters or election judges scanned provisional ballots at polling places, rather than setting them aside to be reviewed later, Maryland Election Administrator Linda H. Lamone said.
That review is important because anyone who asks for a provisional ballot is given one, whether or not they are eligible to vote. Officials are not supposed to include provisional ballots in the vote count until eligibility is confirmed.
State officials, with help from election workers from other counties, will go through the city's paper records to try to determine how many provisional ballots were counted improperly.
Lamone said the process will involve tallying the number of receipts for voters who checked in at each precinct and the number of provisional ballot applications filled out. Those figures will then be compared with the number of ballots counted on Election Day and the number of provisional ballots reviewed the week after the primary.
But because there's nothing on a provisional ballot paper that identifies it as such, Lamone said, it will not be possible to go back and filter them out or determine whether they represent legitimate votes.
"It's the problem with the secret ballot," she said.
Lamone said that if the number of potentially improper votes in Baltimore turns out to be large enough to call the result of any contest into question, it would not be the responsibility of the state board to order a new election. But a judge could do so if someone challenged the outcome in court.
Other jurisdictions in Maryland also had problems on Election Day, but officials said they were on a smaller scale.
In a memo obtained by The Baltimore Sun, state election officials wrote to local election directors saying provisional ballots scanned on Election Day should be recorded as having been accepted, and the voters' records should reflect that they voted.
The state board "is looking into new ways to prevent these from occurring in future elections," the memo reads.
Lamone said five other counties had problems similar to those in Baltimore but that they involved many fewer ballots. She declined to name the counties.
"The problem was bigger in the city than anywhere else," Lamone said.
Lawmakers called for a detailed review of the problems to make sure that they are not repeated.
"This was the first time for this system, but Baltimore was the only jurisdiction to have its results decertified," said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. "I'm deeply troubled by what has happened."
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway said responsibility for the problems ultimately lies with the city Board of Elections and election director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. But any steps to hold them accountable, she said, should be taken only after an investigation is complete.
"They bear the blame and responsibility," the Baltimore Democrat said. "Do I think it's so severe that [Jones] should be terminated? No, it's a new system."
Del. Jill Carter agreed that any action against Jones should take place only after a hearing is held to determine why there were so many problems during the election.
"The Board of Elections failed," the Baltimore Democrat said. "They weren't prepared for this election. But at the end of the day, the outcome is going to be the same. There is no doubt that he should at least be questioned and held accountable for what has happened."
The city election board consists of three Republicans and two Democrats appointed by the governor, with the consent of the Senate, to four-year terms. The board is responsible for hiring the election director.
Jones, who makes $97,000 a year, according to state records, took the job in 2007 after his predecessor quit in frustration over widespread problems during the 2006 primaries.