Voting procedures in city NAACP election criticized


The NAACP has been a frequent and vocal critic of national voting procedures that in the 2000 U.S. presidential election forced many African-Americans in Florida to cast provisional ballots that were later disqualified.

Now the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is being accused of similar problems by its own members, who say the national civil rights organization has botched elections for its Baltimore branch and is stifling free expression in the process.

"Those hanging chads in Florida had nothing on what occurred at the election on Friday," said state Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat who had to cast a provisional ballot because his name was not on the membership list. "I've never seen this kind of activity around a branch election before."

Three days have passed since Baltimore branch members cast their ballots in Friday's election, and a result is not expected until tomorrow. The national organization delayed and took over the local group's election last month after determining that branch procedures had not been followed.

Members like Fulton are furious that their votes are taking five days to be tallied and that they were forced to cast provisional ballots.

Such ballots, which must be authenticated before being counted, were required because many members' names did not appear on NAACP membership lists or because a candidate's poll workers challenged their memberships.

"There was such an outcry by the NAACP on what happened in Florida during the 2000 presidential election that it's amazing to me that with such few votes as they have to count here they would have a problem," said Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr.

Conaway said he and his children - Frank Jr. and City Councilwoman Belinda K. Conaway - and his chief deputy were all required to fill out provisional ballots despite displaying membership cards at the polls, which were set up at the national group's headquarters in Northwest Baltimore.

Candidates for branch president and other positions were reluctant to discuss the election on the record because the NAACP has prohibited them from speaking to the news media.

In letters to several candidates, the national organization threatened to revoke their memberships if they discussed the election before an outcome, several candidates said.

But several members yesterday said that the vote tally has been delayed because of the high number of provisional ballots cast. Such ballots require the national group to authenticate the memberships of voters before counting or discarding their votes, members and candidates said.

"There have been a lot of provisional ballots cast, which is why we don't have a final decision," said Chris Blake, former chairman of the branch's nominating committee.

The situation has worried many members, who fear their votes will not be counted.

"It makes me embarrassed to be a member of a national organization that can't handle a minuscule local election," said member Desiree Dodson, who was forced to cast a provisional ballot despite displaying her membership card. "To me, their credibility is shot."

Calls to the NAACP headquarters and its spokesman John C. White were not returned yesterday.

Little attention is typically paid to the 92-year-old local branch's elections because typically very few of its nearly 4,000 members vote. Exact numbers were not available yesterday, but some members said yesterday they believed nearly 700 people voted. But the campaign has become increasingly rancorous in recent weeks.

Incumbent President G.I. Johnson, running for his fourth two-year term, is facing his first challenge since 2000.

Johnson's challenger this year is Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, an elections specialist and community activist. The election was supposed to be held Nov. 22. But the national organization delayed it until Friday because Cheatham had not been allowed to see the branch membership list, which he could copy and use for campaign mailers.

Cheatham has accused Johnson of lying about being nominated by the branch's nominating committee. Johnson fired back by saying that Cheatham is improperly using the national group's emblem in fliers.

Several members said Johnson's poll workers were challenging many new members, most of whom Cheatham has recruited over the past year.

"Most of the people that I know who were challenged were people that Doc Cheatham had recruited," said Penny Howell, who ran as secretary on Cheatham's ticket and said she had not received a letter from the NAACP prohibiting comments.

Johnson said the NAACP told him not to comment, but he said the problems with the election are being engineered by Cheatham's camp, not his. He said he heard that the final tally would be completed tomorrow.

Several members provided similar accounts of how the provisional balloting worked. Paper ballots were filled out and then deposited in a large manila folder.

Voters sealed the envelopes and then signed their names over the seal. Many said they were not told to print their names and worried that provisional votes with illegible signatures might disqualify certain voters.

"I hope this is not so divisive that it hinders the organization to heal and move forward," Fulton said.

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