On the eve of Election Day last week, Baltimore election officials were scrambling. They didn't have enough polling-place technicians to staff the city's precincts after a company hired to help had fallen short. So they organized a last-minute training session hours before polls were to open.
The next morning, as city residents headed out to vote, another problem arose. About 400election judges failed to show up. Officials prepare for a large number of no-shows each election, but by midmorning all extra judges had been dispatched to fill vacancies and open buildings.
Baltimore election officials now say that despite the snags, high voter turnout and new voting devices, the election went smoothly. While some polling places opened late, the city ended up with just enough technicians and judges to adequately staff all 296 precincts.
But the last-minute problems — including temporarily missing ballots and precinct confusion among some judges — have raised questions about the city's election preparedness. They also have stoked suspicions about the accuracy of election results among activists aligned with former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who narrowly lost the Democratic primary to state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.
The activists on Thursday formally sought an independentinvestigation into dozens of voter complaints against the Baltimore City Board of Elections "to uphold the integrity of Tuesday's primary election." On Friday, Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt declined to do so.
In a letter to Davitt, the activists said they received "numerous complaints of voter irregularities that have risen to the level of possible voter suppression," and outlined a number of them, including untrained campaign workers allowed to serve as precinct judges and polling locations that closed at 8 p.m. despite opening late.
In a written response obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Davitt said: "Your correspondence, though it sets forth serious concerns about the administration of the recent primary election in Baltimore City, cites very few, if any, actual specific allegations of criminal violations of the elections laws." The letter encouraged activists to alert his office of any additional complaints and assured them that prosecutors would "investigate and prosecute" whenever appropriate.
Dixon lost by about 2,500 votes, according to an unofficial tally completed Friday. She awaits the state-certified, precinct-by-precinct results to determine whether she will challenge the outcome.
City and state officials acknowledged problems, including voters being sent to the wrong precincts, ill-prepared judges and delays that prompted a Baltimore circuit judge to extend voting hours at four polling locations.
In addition, eight out of 306 memory cards, or computer stick drives with voting results, were missing on election night. All but one were found the next day, and all of the paper ballots from every precinct were secured.
Still, officials contend, the Baltimore election went well, and the number of problems weren't atypical.
"Normally you have six judges in a precinct and one of them knows what to do," said Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., the city's elections director. "It's not unusual for polling places not to open on time. It's not unusual for judges to do the wrong thing."
Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy administrator for the Maryland Board of Elections, said: "I think it was a great election."
John T. Willis, professor of public policy and government at the University of Baltimore, said mistakes on Election Day are inevitable as hundreds of people must be trained for one day of work, and hundreds of polling sites prepared with electronic voting systems, paper backups and other equipment.
"Elections are large, complex enterprises. It's like moving an army," Willis said. "Imagine if everybody in Maryland had to register their cars on the same day."
Elections officials also note that this was the first year for the city's paper-ballot system, and they said that the rollout went smoothly.
In contrast, Maryland introduced in 2006 an all-electronic system using touch screens. That debut was marred by widespread glitches in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, leading to long lines requiring polls to remain open an hour later.
In Baltimore, recriminations over that primary prompted the local elections director, Gene M. Raynor, to quit in frustration. He was succeeded by Jones.
Maryland Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who heads the Senate committee that oversees election law, said any mistakes this year were routine and that controversy about problems has been fueled by Dixon allies.
"It's just like sour grapes," said Conway, who scoffed at claims of voter suppression.
Conway pointed out that more Baltimore residents voted in this election than in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected the nation's first African-American president. "How can it be voter suppression?" she said.
But Dixon isn't the only one complaining.
Betsy Gardner lost the 5th District City Council race to Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer by 517 votes. She said she had to intervene at one of her precincts because of reports that a judge was turning away 5th District voters from the location, which historically has served 6th District residents.
Election officials corrected the mistake by informing the judge that one of the three precincts at the site, the Langston Hughes Elementary School, was indeed set up for 5th District voters, she said.
"That was at 4 p.m.," Gardner said. "Half the day was already through."
The single precinct is unlikely to change the outcome, she said. But that was not the point of her concerns.
"It's not about winning or losing for me. It's about the lack of training. It's about taking the whole election process seriously and having well-trained, serious-minded people working the polls," she said. "No one took it seriously. It's so frustrating."
Kelly Cross, another losing City Council candidate, also expressed frustration.
"The Board of Elections should be embarrassed" about its poll workers, said Cross, who was pleased with his second-place finish and will not challenge the results. "When I go out and meet people, there is a general assumption that these elections are rigged. So when you allow these unnecessary mistakes to happen, you undermine the public confidence."
Charlie Metz, who narrowly lost to incumbent Councilman Edward Reisinger but doesn't plan to challenge the results, was upset that polls opened late.
"Judges who can't get open by 7 a.m. shouldn't be judges," Metz said. "And if they can't manage to get the memory sticks, they shouldn't be election judges."
Samuel McAfee, a city contractor who has provided voting machine maintenance for decades in the city, said election judges misplace six to 10 memory cards every election.
"We've always had the issue of judges not bringing back enough memory sticks," McAfee said. "The morning after the election, we went on a scavenger hunt to find those missing sticks."
They were either left in the scanners or in the judges' supply bags, he said. But the sealed paper ballots for all voting machines were all returned to the Board of Elections warehouse.
He said the scanners all performed well. Only one of the 306 machines broke down when the motor burned out and could not pull the ballots through the scanner. And it was quickly fixed, he said.
Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at the Johns Hopkins University and expert in electronic voting, has worked as an election judge in Maryland and knows that mistakes happen among poll workers who arrive early, stay late and may not receive adequate training.
"It's amazing that it was only eight [memory cards missing] and that seven were found," said Rubin, author of "Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting."
Jones said the board had trained nearly 2,000 election judges after employing 1,740 judges in the last election. Chief judges are paid $225; regular judges are paid $165.
When about 400 did not show up, Jones said there were enough judges on call at the Board of Elections office. "They called out by the hundreds," Jones said. "By election morning, this office was empty because we had to send people out to get places open."
Jones said most of the judges are well-trained but that there are many who commit errors that sully the whole system.
The Board of Elections also struggled to staff its polling locations with what it termed "technicians."
The board had hired Adecco Government Tad PGS to help recruit poll workers. Jones said the company provided only 34 workers for a city training session that took place nine days before the election. No workers recruited by the company, which did not provide training, showed up to a second class run by the city.
So on April 22, three days before Election Day, Jones sent an "email blast" to all city government employees at 5:42 p.m. "ATTENTION!!!!! TECHNICIANS WANTED," the email read. "The Baltimore City Board of Elections is recruiting fifty people to serve as an Election Day Technician."
The job paid $400 for working from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Applications were accepted until 1 p.m. on April 25. And training started at 6 p.m. that same day, 12 hours before the election started.
Adecco Government Tad PGS, an arm of Bradenton, Fla.-based Tad PGS, provided the recruitment work under an $11 million, five-year contract that the state Board of Public Works approved last year.
Jones said the company did end up providing dozens of workers at the polls. LaTonya Walker, director of recruiting for the company, said the state requested 80 technicians for the city, then increased that number to 90. Walker said Adecco managed to recruit 74 people and that she was not aware of any not showing up for work.
She said the company had difficulty finding recruits because the city elections board was hiring people to do the same job and paying significantly more. Walker said Adecco was paying $14 an hour, which works out to $182 for a 13-hour day, while the city board was paying $400.
"We were, I guess, fishing from the same pond," she said.
Walker said that when the state advertised the contract, it did not disclose that the city would also be hiring and at higher rates. She said the company based its rates on local market surveys but didn't learn about the city's higher rate until about a week before the election.
Walker said it proved especially difficult to recruit in the city because many potential workers do not have reliable transportation to the polls. She said the company did not experience any of the same problems in the counties.
In the end, Jones said the city had enough trained technicians. He said some of the workers had been trained for previous elections and didn't need additional training on the new voting system.
"We were right up to the wire training people the day before the election," McAfee said.