How slow was Maryland's counting of votes in the Nov. 8 election? It was so slow that Paul Revere, riding horseback from Boston, could have given us swifter voting results. It was so slow people started wondering how long Maryland would be saddled with three governors (the present one, the apparent winner and the almost-winner). It was so slow we almost forget there had been an election.
There was no excuse for the failure of election officials to give voters fast and accurate results. Their primary purpose is to facilitate the voting process and to get the news of who won and who lost to the public quickly. Their work is focused on only two days every election year. How could they mess it up so badly?
Fault lies in the decentralized nature of Maryland's election boards. In 19 counties and Baltimore City, local election board workers are state employees; in the other four they are employees of the local government. And yet in all cases, election board expenses are local responsibilities.
This confusion means that many local election boards feel they can act independent of the state board. That's one reason absentee balloting was so chaotic: Each local board seemed to have its own way of handling the matter and few bothered to follow the directive from the state board to stick to the letter of the law in issuing absentee ballots.
The ideal solution would be to make all local election boards state operations, both in personnel and in the financing of elections. But that's not likely to happen. Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which pay their local election board workers far more than anywhere else in the state, have always resisted a state takeover. And picking up the heavy costs of staging a vote for Maryland offices and for president would strain an already overloaded state budget.
Still, the new General Assembly should give the state board power to ensure that there is absolute uniformity in the way local election boards send out and count absentee ballots. A higher and uniform payment to election-day judges would help, as would a detailed instruction manual and training programs for all 9,000 judges statewide.
The troubles this month that delayed an accurate vote count in the race for governor cannot be allowed to happen again. We live in an age of near-instant communications. There's no longer any excuse for a vote count that extends for days, and then weeks. Voters deserve quick and complete results. It will be up to the new state legislature to set up a system that makes this a reality in Maryland.