Card snafu fixed by late morning, but voters angry

Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
County executive candidate Steven Silverman fills out his paper provisional ballot at Cresthaven Elementary School in Silver Spring after waiting roughly 45 minutes with about 15 other voters.

Lynne Sacks walked out of the Silver Spring Library after voting in Tuesday’s primary feeling ‘‘completely appalled” by an election snafu that left many voters outraged.

‘‘I know a lot of people are feeling disenfranchised,” said Sacks, an educational consultant who said it took an hour for her to vote on a provisional, or paper, ballot.

One voter threw away a paper ballot out of frustration, and another left without voting because the line was too long, she said.

Voters were outraged and frustrated by the delays caused when the access cards for voters to use the electronic voting machines were not sent to polling sites with the machines.

‘‘This is ridiculous,” complained Allen Hirsh after arriving at his Silver Spring polling site on Tuesday morning only to find that he couldn’t use the machines. He, too, had to cast a paper ballot that may or may not be accepted by an elections judge. ‘‘Some people should have to answer for this,” he said.

The problem occurred at all of the county’s 238 polling precincts, said Marjorie Roher, an administrative specialist with the county elections board. Leaving out the access cards was an ‘‘unfortunate and regrettable staff error,” she said.

The problem was mostly resolved by late morning.

About a dozen people were standing in the stalled line at the Silver Spring Library when election judge Rachel Shapiro told them shortly before 8 a.m. about the missing cards, offering them the option of coming back or using a paper ballot — but only about 50 paper ballots were available.

‘‘I’ve had my doubts about electronic voting for a long time,” said Bruce Hawkins, a Silver Spring writer and editor, who was waiting in line.

One man stormed out, saying, ‘‘I just got disenfranchised.”

Outside Takoma Park Middle School, David Blockstein, a campaign volunteer for Democratic state Senate candidate Jamie Raskin, said he watched the line grow as more people arrived to vote only to be confronted with the delays.

‘‘Some people were pretty annoyed,” Blockstein said. ‘‘If people come out and are taking their time to exercise their rights and there is an impediment, even a short delay, it will turn off voters. There will be at least some people who won’t come back.”

The problem proves the need for a backup system, he said. ‘‘We’ve all seen close elections,” Blockstein said. ‘‘Every vote counts.”

Takoma Park Councilwoman Joy Austin-Lane called the voting problems ‘‘suspicious” after she arrived at Piney Branch Elementary School to vote shortly after 9 a.m.

‘‘It’s certainly worrisome if we support a democratic society,” she said. ‘‘I’m guessing it’s incompetence, but in my view, that means whoever is in charge of this should be replaced.”

Alex Minicozzi, 36, a tax economist for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, arrived at the school before the access cards did, but waited to use a voting machine.

Minicozzi said she had to warn work that she would be late. ‘‘It was either that or not vote,” she said.

The whole process took about 30 minutes, she said. ‘‘It was a little annoying, but what do you do?”

Patricia Dufour of Bethesda was turned away from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School when the polling site ran out of provisional ballots for Democratic voters.

‘‘I wasn’t happy,” she said. ‘‘I took a half-hour off from work to do this, and I can’t go back again tonight to see if they have the stupid things. All I can say is I hope they get their act together when the general election comes around.”

The light turnout at Olney Elementary School at 9:15 Tuesday morning was made even lighter when three would-be voters were turned away. ‘‘Instead of being able to vote, I was told the machines were down and they’d run out of paper ballots for [registered] Republicans,” said Joyce Teske, 63, a retiree in Olney. ‘‘It’s unacceptable.”

Election officials were apologetic and asked Teske to try again later. If she was in line by 8 p.m., they said, she would be able to vote.

Teske, however, was skeptical about returning. ‘‘We’ve been receiving numerous phone calls from all the candidates, disrupting our lives for the past two weeks, then we go to vote and can’t,” she said. ‘‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it back there again.”

A couple dozen candidate supporters waving signs and handing out brochures far outnumbered the handful of voters making their way into Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg at 9 a.m.

‘‘It’s awful, the turnout is so light,” said Elly Shaw-Belblidia, 55, of Kentlands, a Democratic precinct chairwoman.

But the sight that greeted her when the polls opened at 7 a.m. was far more distressing. ‘‘People left here without being able to vote, which is horrifying to me,” Shaw-Belblidia said. ‘‘People expressed their disgruntlement, and you can’t blame them.”

If the turnout remains light, problems with the voting machines and lack of paper ballots may affect the election, she said. ‘‘When the turnout is light, five or six votes can make a big difference,” Shaw-Belblidia said. ‘‘I’ve never seen this happen before. The Board of Elections has some work to do. Imagine if this had been a general election?”

Staff Writers Peggy Vaughn and Stephanie Siegel contributed to this report.