Four years after fraud allegations enveloped the gubernatorial election, Baltimore will employ a new $6.5 million computerized system next month that officials hope will eliminate doubts over accuracy in counting votes.
For close to 50 years, the city relied on the lever-and-crank ballot casting system, which was criticized in the 1994 election between Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his Republican challenger, Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Glendening won by 5,993 votes, resulting in a recount and investigation into voter fraud in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The recount and a subsequent state prosecutor's investigation upheld Glendening's victory.
But questions about Baltimore's election results underscored the city's need for a new system. City elections supervisors had found it increasingly difficult over the years to find replacement parts for the old lever machines after the manufacturer stopped making the machines.
Starting with the Sept. 15 primary, Baltimore residents will push lighted buttons to cast votes, which will be tabulated on computer cartridges. The city has 287,000 registered voters.
"We're really excited about it because even though it's a new machine, it's set up similar to the old system," Baltimore elections director Barbara E. Jackson said. "I just felt that Baltimore City has got to move into the new century."
For Jackson and her army of 2,350 election workers in the city's 325 precincts, the system will allow votes to be counted more quickly. Jackson is hoping that primary returns will be tabulated by 10 p.m., at least two hours earlier than past elections.
"That will be a first for Baltimore City," Jackson said.
The new AVC Advantage Voting Machine also is allowing Jackson to revamp the Election Day staff. Although the state prosecutor's office found no cause to file charges in the 1994 election vote count, it discovered the city election was beset with error, poor judgment, negligence, incompetence and procedural problems.
The addition of the new machines requires all election staffers to attend training classes. Jackson said she has removed 100 Election Day workers from the process after discovering they couldn't understand or handle the machines.
Precinct election judges will no longer have to stand behind voting machines calling out candidate tallies to be recorded on paper. Many critics blame the procedure for the errors. "In a couple of judge classes, I got a standing ovation" after announcing the change, Jackson said.
When city voters push the lighted buttons, a green arrow will appear next to the name of the candidate they choose. A computer screen will display which candidate the voter chose. If the voter agrees with the displayed choice, he or she pushes an orange "cast ballot" button and the vote is automatically recorded.
At the end of the day, precinct vote tallies will be printed while the computer cartridge is transferred to election headquarters for counting. Jackson said she is experiencing pre-primary jitters over the inaugural system run.
"I'm scared to death," said Jackson, who has worked in the office for 32 years and has spent 12 years as the director. "I'm already having nightmares, and I've been praying a lot."
State election officials note that Baltimore's election system will jump from one of the oldest to the most progressive, skipping the paper ballot card readers that 18 counties in Maryland employ.
"It's a very nice system," Linda H. Lamone, state administrator of Maryland election laws, said of Baltimore's new machines.
Jackson is expecting confusion during the primary election but hopes leaflets being mailed to each voter explaining the system will help.
Voters seemed to welcome the space-age booths at city headquarters.
Earle Jones of Northeast Baltimore took his son, Anthony, 18, to register at the elections office at 417 E. Fayette St. this week and show him how to vote.
Checking out the mock setup on display, Jones called the machines an improvement, especially for senior citizens.
"When you would get behind that curtain, you would just look up in awe," he said of the old machines. "This is not as frightening."
Pub Date: 8/27/98