Training key to fixing voting woes

Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006

Better training of elections judges, better communications between polling sites and the county elections board and better accountability from both the county and state are key to avoiding the widespread problems that plagued last week’s primary election, the county’s top elections officials say.

‘‘The basic issue here [with missing voter access cards] was human error. We regret that,” Montgomery elections board President Nancy H. Dacek said during a meeting Monday morning with the County Council. ‘‘...That particular error will never happen again ... Our concern has been with things after that. ... We don’t have a way to be in touch with all 238 precincts. We need a distribution system to get to all precincts, and we don’t have that.”

The board also has contracted with a nonprofit organization to review its administrative and system practices, said county elections spokeswoman Marjorie Roher.

Those are some of steps outlined in an action plan being sent today to State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone, who demanded it from Montgomery County and other jurisdictions that experienced problems last week, including Prince George’s and Baltimore city. The local boards were told to include their process for identifying election day supplies and verifying which supplies are delivered to precinct judges.

Those requirements are especially critical for Montgomery County, where voting last week was delayed in some places for hours after supply bags were delivered to precincts without the voter access cards needed to operate the electronic voting machines. Many voters had to cast their votes on provisional, or paper, ballots or return later in the day. Poll hours were extended an hour on Sept. 12 to accommodate voters.

Because 10,000 to 12,000 provisional ballots were cast and are only now being counted, several close elections remain up in the air, including the Democratic primary in Congressional District 4 and a few House of Delegate races.

In addition to the missing access cards, the new electronic poll books, used to verify voter information, failed; machines had to be restarted; and some elections judges did not know how to fix the problems. Further, some polling sites closed at 8 p.m. because precinct officials did not know a judge had ordered them to stay open until 9 p.m.

Montgomery County began counting between 10,000 and 12,000 provisional ballots on Monday, said Marjorie Roher, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
Last week, the board began counting the 6,000 absentee ballots that had arrived so far; the county mailed out 11,200 requested absentee ballots. The county begins counting the overseas absentee ballots at 10 a.m. today.
The election board hopes to certify the results by Sept. 25, but that depends on how long it takes to finish the tally, Roher said.
— C. Benjamin Ford
During Monday’s council meeting, Dacek and elections director Margaret A. Jurgensen blamed the poll book and equipment problems on the state Board of Elections.

‘‘This election cycle we have been in a constant state of reaction because of materials [from the state] arriving late in the process,” Jurgensen told council Vice President Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton, who called Monday’s meeting.

Like Lamone, the County Council wants an explanation and a plan to fix the problems for the Nov. 7 election. Jurgensen said that aside from establishing the communication plan, the board needs a larger space for training election judges and needs the county to complete a basement warehouse to store the e-poll books.

Council members were not allowed to ask questions during Monday’s half-hour meeting because Dacek and Jurgensen had to leave to begin counting the provisional ballots.

This week, the elections board hired The Election Center, a trade group for elections officials in Houston, to investigate the primary election’s problems. The center’s membership includes government employees responsible for voter registration and elections administrator and companies that sell election equipment.

The Election Center was chosen because of its experience and its standing among elections professionals, Roher said.

However, an expert on electronic voting machines and their problems, Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins University, said the Texas center does not have the technical expertise to consider the voting machines.

‘‘This is the board of elections that is requesting to bring on The Elections Center for this review of management systems, not [a review of] Diebold [voting machines],” said Jurgensen, who is a member of the center; Dacek is not. ‘‘This [review] has to do with the provisioning of supplies and equipment at the polling places. At no time are we asking them to look at voting systems. Also, this is the only organization, to our knowledge, that is focused exclusively on voting administration and management.”

Ernest Hawkins, a board member of The Election Center, said the group maintains its impartiality by using independent contractors to conduct the reviews. Two recently retired elections officials will perform the audit in Montgomery County: Connie Schmidt, who installed the Diebold Accuvote system, also used in Maryland, when she was the elections administrator in Johnson County, Kansas; and Dwight Beattie, a former elections administrator in Santa Clara, Calif.

The consultants are scheduled to have an initial report completed by the first week in October. A final report is due Oct. 20. The review is not expected to cost more than $25,000, Roher said.

An update on the board’s progress is expected before the council on Sept. 27.

Still, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and some council members, including council President George L. Leventhal, have called on Dacek and Jurgensen to resign. Monday morning’s meeting did not change their minds. ‘‘Nothing said today changes the fact that [Duncan] has no confidence in [Dacek and Jurgensen],” Duncan spokesman David S. Weaver said. ‘‘We’re hearing excuses when we need acceptance of responsibility. Why we would risk repeating the same debacle with the same leadership makes no sense.”

Weaver said if the women were reporting directly to Duncan, they would have already been fired. But Dacek’s position is filled by the governor, and the elections board hires the elections director.

‘‘I still have no confidence in either [Dacek or Jurgensen], and think there should be a complete overhaul in leadership, but it’s not up to me,” Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said Tuesday. ‘‘I understand that the board of elections is doing triage right now and the most urgent thing is to complete counting of the [provisional] ballots. That right now is more urgent than doing a national search to replace Jurgensen.”

Dacek has refused to resign, and last week the board issued a statement supporting Jurgensen.

‘‘I don’t think a leadership change at this stage in the game makes much sense,” Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said after Monday’s meeting.

Other organizations including the General Assembly are expected to weigh in on Montgomery’s voting problems. Common Cause Maryland Director Bobbie Walton said she will ask her board to call for a commission studying election equipment and procedures. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland recommended setting penalties for election judges who fail to show up and developing an emergency plan to get more provisional ballots to polling sites when voters cannot use the machines.

The ACLU has asked to meet with Lamone, who is scheduled to appear today before the Board of Public Works in Annapolis to discuss last week’s debacle.

Staff Writer C. Benjamin Ford contributed to this report.