Plan to speed up Prince George's election results ended up slowing process
Larger polling sites asked to bring in results rather than transmit data
In an effort to speed up the process of tabulating votes from the primary election, the Prince George's County Board of Elections implemented a new process that instead caused the county to be one of the slowest jurisdictions in the state to compile results.
Alisha Alexander, the county's elections administrator, said a more efficient approach will be taken in the next election.
"We understand that everybody wants results in a timely manner," Alexander said.
It took until 5 a.m. the day after the Sept. 14 primary to report about 70 percent of election returns, despite the county having the second lowest percentage of voter turnout in nearly 20 years. At midnight, more than four hours after polls had closed, less than half of the results from the county's 223 precincts had been reported. About 101,000 people cast ballots in the primary, not counting absentee and provisional ballots.
By comparison, in Montgomery County, where there are about 20 more polling sites than in Prince George's, election officials wrapped up election results around 1:30 a.m., Montgomery elections board spokeswoman Marjorie Roher said.
Alexander said the long night was surprising; she said the process is normally done by 2:30 a.m. Instead, she said the county was one of the last jurisdictions in the state to post returns, along with Baltimore County, at around 5 a.m.
One of the chief challenges compiling results quickly is the state's voting machine software. After judges at each polling site compile memory cards from each machine, the results are sent over telephone lines to the board office in Upper Marlboro. But it is a long process, Alexander said. Smaller polls take about 30 minutes to send the data. Larger locations take more than an hour to send data, if the results transmit at all.
"Based on past history, the larger [polls] have problems," she said. "It takes too long. [The transmissions] time out just because there's so much data to send."
In the past, transmission problems have led some judges to try repeatedly to send data before giving up and driving in results, adding hours to the process.
Transmission errors have been a recurring problem in larger counties, said Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections.
"There's a limit, a capacity to how much data you can upload at one time," said Goldstein, adding that the county and state will work together to find a better solution. "It's one of those things we have to work with."
In neighboring Montgomery County, Roher said some larger poll sites hand-deliver their memory cards to the county office to save time, but about 80 percent of the poll sites transmit the results.
Alexander said Prince George's changed its counting process this year and required larger polling sites to automatically bring in memory cards from voting machines for processing rather than send information electronically. The quick physical delivery was expected to save the time it took for poll workers to attempt to transmit results, Alexander said. However, there were more than 2,000 cards to scan this year, and each takes four to six minutes to be read by the computer.
Goldstein said that the system's reading cards can slow down, making it possible to only read about 15 to 20 cards at a time.
Polling locations with more than 10 voting machines were asked to bring the cards to the Board of Elections office in Upper Marlboro to scan instead of compiling the results on site.
The move was also intended to address any potential challenges of results, Alexander said.
"There were a large number of candidates on the ballot in certain races," she said. "We wanted to have actual custody of the memory cards in case there was a challenge."
Alexander said having memory cards at poll sites waiting to be sent would open another time window for candidates to make accusations of tampering.
"Hypothetically, if we didn't have the cards here, people could ask what happened to them Why were they sitting around? What if there were cards left in machines?'" she said. "We wanted to have our memory cards here."
Campaign staff for former Del. Rushern L. Baker III, who narrowly lost his 2006 bid for county executive by 5,098 votes, said they had drafted a challenge to the primary election results that could be filed in county court if the margin was slim again.
Baker ended up winning with 44 percent of the vote last week. Sheriff Michael A. Jackson received 33 percent, County Councilman Samuel H. Dean (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville received 13 percent and Del. Gerron Levi and Henry C. Turner each had fewer than 10,000 votes and split the remaining 10 percent.
The delay in results put a crimp in election night celebrations. At Baker's party at the Six Flags America amusement park, Baker declared victory just after 11:30 p.m., even though results for less than half the county had been released.
Many campaign volunteers, exhausted from starting the day at 7 a.m., went home with their races still undecided.
"I had expected the results a little more quickly," said Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro, one of many lawmakers who noted the delays. "The next morning, we started getting calls asking if we won."
Since touch-screen voting machines were added to the state in 2004, voters have come to expect quicker results, Griffith said.
Alexander said each poll location will compile its results onsite after polls close in the Nov. 2 general election, but warned that some delays may still occur.
"There are always polling places that are unable to transmit," she said.
Goldstein said he is sure Alexander will continue to refine the process.
"We definitely think improvements need to be made," he said. "There are ways to make sure we get the information up faster."