Delays in election results due to human error more than technical flaws

Frustrated candidates and voters waited hours for results in this week's closest primaries, but elections officials insisted that delays and minor glitches were customary and that the state's voting system worked smoothly.

While Marylanders may want electronic machines to spit out instantaneous numbers when polls close, elections officials say the reality of counting is more cumbersome, with room for error.

The lag for results in Baltimore City and Baltimore County stemmed from missteps by poll workers and judges, as well as computer software glitches in some places. Those factors left some races too close to call — notably the one for state's attorney in Baltimore — late Wednesday.

In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, some poll workers forgot to remove the memory cards from voting machines for delivery to local election boards.

Errors like that happen in every election, partly because the voting system is run by "a lot of people who don't do this on a full-time basis," said Ross Goldstein, a deputy administrator with the Maryland State Board of Elections.

State and local officials said they did not anticipate making significant adjustments before November's general election, when many more voters may arrive at polling places.

Turnout was generally light on Tuesday, with state officials saying at least 27.6 percent of eligible voters went to the polls (numbers were still being tallied), down from 29.6 percent four years ago. It could be the lowest turnout in at least two decades, according to state board of elections figures.

Even after the state's shift to touch-screen voting machines, the process of tabulation is more complicated — and old-school — than many might imagine.

In Baltimore, once polls close, judges shut down and print several tally sheets, which are posted at the location. Police officers go to precincts to pick up the memory cards from hundreds of voting machines; if they aren't ready, judges drive them to the elections board themselves. There, they're read by a computer in batches. Finally the information is printed and made public.

The counting in the race for Baltimore state's attorney, which had challenger Gregg Bernstein ahead of incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy by about 1,300 votes, stretched into the late afternoon Wednesday, with Jessamy raising questions about whether all votes had been accurately counted. Still, city elections director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. thought the primary "went beautifully."

"It's not unusual to not have 100 percent before we leave at night," he said. "It's not unusual to not have 100 percent first thing in the morning."

It only feels like things are moving slowly, he said, particularly for the candidates.

Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, said that some of the haste may stem from the number of close races.

"Americans are incredibly impatient," he said. "During the days of paper ballots, it would take days to learn the outcome of an election."

In Baltimore County, results were tabulated slowly Tuesday night. Local candidates and campaign workers went to sleep with a dearth of knowledge, and some streamed to the county election board Wednesday morning hoping for the most up-to-date numbers.

Rebecca Dongarra, a Democrat running for the District 1 County Council seat representing Catonsville, was there from about 9 a.m. to noon.

"Initially we thought the results would be in by 11 or 12 last night," Dongarra said. "I quickly decided when the clock struck 12:03 that I was going to bed."

In previous years, each precinct in the county would send the information electronically to county election board headquarters. But errors often kept judges at the polling stations up to five hours after polls had formally closed.

"There were too many precincts out there at 11, 12, 1 o'clock still trying to transmit results," said Jeffrey Stevens, who works on technological issues for the county board of elections.

This year, judges were supposed to hand-deliver the memory cards to headquarters. Some forgot them; others mistakenly placed them in with other election equipment, Stevens said.

County staff also faced a technology problem. Early in the night, their computer server crashed when it was processing too many voter data cards at once. So they settled on a slower pace to keep the software running smoothly.

Dori Grasso, the chief Democratic judge at a Lutherville polling place, said she found her training much too short to fully cover all the many details and steps judges must memorize. This was her second year as a chief judge. "You need a lot more hands-on experience," Grasso said. "They really need to expand the time for training. Three hours just doesn't cut it, especially for people who are fairly new."

In Baltimore, voting precincts experienced no technical problems, but human error by an overworked staff was a problem, Jones said.

"We've worked people for six days for early voting, and we've worked to prepare people for an election," Jones said. "At some point we go home."

Staff left at about 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday and returned about 5 hours later, he said.

The tabulation of all absentee and provisional ballots won't be completed until next week, and local elections boards are scheduled to certify races on Sept. 24, Jones said.

Sun staff reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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