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Busy early voting provides tune-up for judges trained to assure smooth election

Busy early voting provides tune-up for judges trained to assure smooth election
Voters wait in line to receive their ballots on the first day of early voting at Towson University's Administration Building on Thursday, Oct. 27. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

On the first day of early voting on Oct. 27, some voters waited in lines for more than 40 minutes 10 deep to mark their ballots at Towson University's administration building.

"We've had lines all day long," said Jim Erbe, the chief Republican judge at the Towson center, one of nine such centers in Baltimore County, during what shaped up to be a record-setting opening day at polls across Maryland. Wait times were about 30 minutes during peak hours.

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Few problems were reported at any of the county sites, where voters relied on the election judges, a vital battalion of temporary workers enlisted every two years to keep the democratic process moving.

Overall, the day was smooth, thanks in part to preparation, front-line judges said. Of the 23 judges on duty in Towson, Erbe said 19 had worked during the primary in April.

"They like to see it busy because the time goes fast," Erbe said.

For the 1,500 election judges in the county who will manage next Tuesday's general election, the marathon that started months ago is nearing the finish.

"Early voting [started] Oct. 27," said Paul Lubell, president of Baltimore County's five-member election board. "Between then and the middle of November, I won't have much time to myself."

Lubell, a 73-year-old Republican from Catonsville, who lives in Catonsville, was appointed to the county board in 2015 and has been an election judge for eight years.

He said he expected a large turnout for early voting, noting that the number of absentee ballots received as of Oct. 26 exceeded the number in the presidential election of 2012.

"We have some unique candidates." Lubell said. "You have two candidates you might say are polarizing," Lubell said, alluding to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Unofficial early voting turnout through Nov. 2, which doesn't include provisional or absentee ballots, indicates that early voting turnout has nearly doubled in Baltimore County, when comparing the 2016 general election to the 2012 general election.

Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, 105,070 ballots had been cast in Baltimore County — 19.2 percent of eligible active voters. In 2012 in Baltimore County, 10.9 percent of eligible voters voted early. Weather impacted the 2012 election — Gov. Martin O'Malley cancelled early voting on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30 that year because of Hurricane Sandy, according to a state report. Early voting was extended to Nov. 2 that year as a result, but voters had five days to cast ballots during early voting, compared to eight days this year.

At Towson University Administration Building, from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2, 10,141 county residents cast their ballots. At the Arbutus Recreation Center, another polling place in Baltimore County, 10,119 people have voted over the past week.

Even in years when there is less rancor and interest in a presidential race, mounting an election is logistically daunting. This season's political taunting and talk of voter suppression, partisan poll monitors and a "rigged election" have ratcheted up the pressure on poll workers.

This year also could bring a turnout that eclipses the 75 percent recorded in 2012's presidential race in Baltimore County, which ranks third in the state in the number of registered voters — more than 546,000 — and operates 192 polling places serving 236 precincts for the general election.

Getting prepared

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Elections judges have to be prepared to handle voter problems on the spot, dealing with everything from identification and verification of voters to spoiled or miscast ballots.

Recruitment and training efforts are held in the weeks before polls open.

The county this year offered targeted training for the judges on topics such as provisional ballots, checking in voters and how to reset a vote-counting scanner if the power fails. Provisional ballots are used to record a person's vote if their eligibility to vote is in question.

The latest data, representing at least 758,000 ballots cast — and millions more requested — highlight Trump's difficult path to the White House. Oct. 26, 2016.

A standard operations manual, 18 chapters long, written at the state level with collaboration from local election offices, is used for training, said Donna Duncan, assistant deputy for election policy at the state Board of Elections, and judges are quizzed during training.

As of Sept. 22, the county had 1,453 returning judges and 40 new judges were trained. In the board's October report, the county was looking for 100 more people to serve as judges, Lubell said.

"I think things have been [gone] pretty well," he said. "We're doing a lot better job than Baltimore City did."

With less than two weeks before the opening of 10 days of early voting, the city issued an urgent appeal for judges.

For their work, election judges in Baltimore County are paid $162.50 and chief judges get $225 for their day's work.

Election judges must be registered voters in the state, be able to work a 15-hour day and read, speak, write and understand English. Registered Democrats and Republicans are accepted before unaffiliated voters.

They are also paid $40 for attending training classes, which continued into late last month.

Gail Reid, of Towson, who was voting last week at the university site, said she voted early because she plans to will work at the polls as a Democratic election judge Nov. 8.

"I wanted to participate in a constructive way," she said.

The 60-year-old, a clinical social worker from the Gaywood community, said she decided to become a judge for her own peace of mind and was reassured after attending a three-hour training course with the way ballots are handled.

Voter education and outreach efforts started even earlier across the county.

Maryland introduced a $28 million paper-ballot voting system this year that replaced touch-screen machines, a shift mandated in 2007 by the state legislature.

Starting before the primary in April and throughout the summer, the new paper-ballot readers election machines were taken to festivals, churches and community events so voters could become acclimated.

"We put out the election machines, had people come in, test it, use it, play with it, understand how it works, so they'll be aware when it comes to Election Day," said Bruce Harris, secretary of Baltimore County's election board. "That really brought visibility to thousands of people who wouldn't have seen that otherwise."

It took about 18 months to buy, test and install the new voting system in the state, Duncan said.

Different climate

In addition to predictable waves of negative advertising, the 2016 campaign has brought talk of voter fraud, voter suppression and even hacking of data and results to influence the nation's politics.

While Lubell has concerns about voter fraud, he said the county does a good job to minimize it, mostly behind the scenes. For instance, elections offices receive death lists from the Social Security Administration and cull names of deceased voters from the rolls.

"The staff both at the state level and the local level is very nonpartisan and works as hard as possible to minimize voter fraud. I say minimize because in reality you can never get rid of it 100 percent, but I seriously doubt it influences any election in Maryland," Lubell said.

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Lubell said he does not recall ever seeing any outside poll watchers, and was unaware of any voter suppression tactics in the area.

"I'm not subject to that," he said. "I have Caller ID. I don't pick up the phone for any political messages."

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said conventional wisdom holds that negative campaigning suppresses voter turnout. So far, this year is proving different.

"High voter turnout is always good for democracy, even if it's just so people can get it over with," Kromer said.

Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs, called it "an urgency in the air."

"There's a sense of, 'We're sick of it, but we've got to get this over with,'" he said.

Reporting from The Baltimore Sun and The Associated Press was included in this story.

Ballot questions

There are 11 local ballots questions for Baltimore County this year.

Question A asks voters to accept or reject a proposed addition to the county's charter, which would establish a once-a-decade Charter Review Commission, tasked with reviewing the document, formulating suggestions and presenting them to county officials.

The bill that calls for the charter addition was primarily sponsored by Councilman David Marks, he said, and approved unanimously by the council in 2015. Marks called the commission "a good look at efficiency and performance of the county government."

If approved, the Charter Review Commission would have 11 members. The commission would be appointed by March 1 in the seventh year of each decade — 2017, 2027, 2037, etc.

Each County Council member would appoint one member; the county executive would appoint two. The county attorney will also be a member. The chair of the County Council will also appoint an additional member, to serve as the chair of the commission.

The commission will review the charter and hold at least one public hearing. It will submit its finding in a written report to the council and executive by Oct. 15 of that year.

Questions B through J are proposals to allow the county to borrow money for various uses, including for schools and parks.

Question K deals with a proposed shopping center near White Marsh.

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