Election snafus leave voters wondering if their votes were counted

Lillian Gladden, of Gardenville, and other District 28 voters vote at their polling place at Hazelwood Elementary School on primary election day.
Lillian Gladden, of Gardenville, and other District 28 voters vote at their polling place at Hazelwood Elementary School on primary election day. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Mayfield resident John Raine, the first in line at his polling place on Election Day last month, can understand why the city's election results are now in question.

When Raine, 30, checked his ballot folder, he saw that poll workers had given him five blank ballots. And when he approached the scanner machine, no election judges were around.


"I could have scanned in all five," he said. "But I didn't. I called the judge over."

Voters like Raine are feeling less confidence in the electoral system these days, as the state steps in to review irregularities at some polling places during the April 26 primary. With elections ever more partisan and many highly contested races ending in narrow vote margins, election watchers say people are more concerned than ever about ballots being tallied accurately.


"Who wins matters," said Michael Hanmer, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park who researches voting issues. "Making sure the process is working properly and having confidence that they got it right is critical."

State officials are investigating discrepancies between the number of people who checked in and the number of ballots cast at polling sites, as well as how provisional ballots were counted. Linda H. Lamone, the state election administrator, said city poll workers appear to have put some provisional ballots into scanning machines to be counted on Election Day, rather than putting them aside to be verified later.

"We're in an era of distrust and disbelief in every government agency, and this unfortunately reinforces that," said Herb Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College. He previously was a member of, and then a consultant to, the city elections board.

"It's a tremendous blow to the Board of Elections of Baltimore City," he said. "Whenever you adopt a new system, it's almost inevitable there are going to be glitches. You don't want that to happen in a close election for an important post."


After the primary, elections officials were under scrutiny as they counted absentee and provisional ballots. The unofficial results, which included early voting and ballots cast on Election Day, showed state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh narrowly beating former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The election results were confirmed, and the election was seemingly over — until state officials withdrew their certification Thursday and launched a precinct-level investigation.

It is unclear which precincts are under review, but voters have told The Baltimore Sun about a range of problems they had at multiple polling sites. Raine, for example, said that when his wife voted later in the day, she was given four ballots, though there was a judge was stationed at the scanning machine.

Sallie Miller, 64, said the scanner at her polling place in Waverly jammed, leaving perhaps 60 voters unable to put in their ballots. Poll workers collected the ballots and told voters they would be scanned once the machine was fixed or replaced.

"We don't know if they're going to be recorded properly or at all," Miller, a schoolteacher, told The Baltimore Sun on Election Day. "That's not right."

City election director Armstead Jones Sr. said at the time that a new machine was sent to Waverly and ballots were retrieved from a "secured" bin and scanned.

Still, Miller felt uneasy. After years of touch-screen machines, this year voters filled in ovals on paper ballots that were scanned.

"Every time we go to vote, it's a different way to vote," she said.

Voting technology has improved over the years, especially since the 2000 presidential contest. Then, the outcome was in limbo as Florida election officials puzzled over "hanging chads" from incompletely punched-out paper ballots, leading to a Supreme Court fight and, finally, George Bush's win over Al Gore.

"Some problems have been solved since then, but some other problems have emerged," said Hanmer, co-author of the book, "Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot."

"There is this unknown: Is this vote going to be counted as I intended? Over time, it can chip away on people's faith in the process," he said.

In Maryland, officials opted for the current system because the previous one left them without a paper trail in cases of contested results. With any new system, though, both voters and poll workers need time to familiarize themselves with it, Hanmer said.

Real-time scrutiny of elections, as problems are publicized by the media and interest groups, also contributes to the perception that elections are plagued with problems. "In the communications environment that we're in, it's a lot easier now to take notice and to spread the word," Hanmer said.

Other problems reported on Election Day in Baltimore included computer memory cards of voting results going missing, though most were found, as well as voters being sent to the wrong precincts and delays that prompted a Baltimore circuit judge to extend voting hours at four polling locations.

Activists, many of them aligned with Dixon, sought an independent investigation by Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt. He declined but assured them that prosecutors would step in when appropriate.

Dixon has questioned the administration of the election.

The local disputes come as voting rights have been at the forefront of public debate nationally. Some states have tightened identification laws at their polling places, which opponents say is actually an attempt to suppress votes.

In Maryland, by contrast, a new state law this year allowed people with felony convictions to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison. Before that, they had to finish probation or parole.

"Voter ID laws are a real shift in what had been a long trend of making voting easier. These are a real jump in the other direction," Hanmer said. "We have to pay attention to the potential for fraud and be vigilant about it. But the key issues are making the process easier and more efficient for voters. We don't have a lot of evidence of fraud, the kind that voter ID laws would combat."

Some elections experts said that voters should be reassured that Maryland officials are publicly addressing the problem and combing through paper ballots in an attempt to reconcile discrepancies.

"The worst thing you can do is to try to paper over it ... then you get a lot of conspiracy theories," said Lawrence Norden, who specializes in election issues for the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. "From what I can tell, it seems there's an effort to be public."

Norden said there is a dearth of data on the extent of voting problems. Companies that make voting machines are not required to report malfunctions to any governing agency, he wrote in a Brennan Center report, "Voting System Failures: A Database Solution."

"We don't have good records on any of this stuff," he said. "Records of how often there are problems — why, or how to prevent them."


Voting systems often change, he added. That leaves both voters and poll workers repeatedly dealing with changes, which slows down the process and can result in hours-long lines, as were seen in Arizona on its primary day, he said. That, combined with other changes in polling places and voting rules, can lead to confusion.


"When you start changing rules willy-nilly, how you vote, when you can vote, when there's that much churn, you're going to have problems," Norden said.

Regardless of which voting system is in place, elections by their nature can be complex undertakings, said Smith of McDaniel College. Plus, the city perennially has problems recruiting enough election judges and other poll workers, he said.

"In terms of administering elections, it's 363 days of tedium, boredom, record-keeping and file-maintenance, and then suddenly, two days, primary day and election day, when you have to bring not just your A game but your A-plus game," he said. "They are truly hardworking and dedicated people in a position that tends to be discounted."

Election experts also say there is a chronic lack of funding and attention to the voting process.

In response to a push for reform following the 2000 election, President Bush signed the Help America Voting Act in 2002 to improve the integrity and efficiency of the process. But the bipartisan Election Assistance Commission the act created to adopt guidelines and distribute funding to help states with their elections had its funding reduced or its positions left vacant so often that the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call dubbed it "the phantom commission."

After the previous Baltimore mayoral election drew low turnout, this year's primary attracted a much larger number of voters. Retired schoolteacher Amelia Mitchell had a frustrating experience at her polling place in Coldspring, so the news that Maryland elections officials decertified the city's primary results lent weight to her concerns.

Mitchell said that when she went to fill out a ballot, she realized she had been given two of them. She gave her completed ballot as well as the blank one to an election official but didn't see if they were scanned. Now she wonders if her vote was counted.

"The state is saying it's not counted correctly," said Mitchell, who voted for Dixon. "I'm saying, well, you know, maybe there's some credibility to what Ms. Dixon was trying to say."

Baltimore Sun reporters Doug Donovan and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.