Ballots still being counted

Election officials reveal problems with Sept. 12 primary were broader than first thought

Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006

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By Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
County Board of Elections members Doris Jacobs (left), Francis DiSalvo, Janette Valle Sheehan and Carl Ruble inspect a printout of the results from one of the Sept. 12 primary voting machines whose contents were counted for the first time Wednesday.

Candidates and private citizens expressed alarm over the integrity of the primary election vote in Prince George's County after election officials began counting ballots from 26 precincts Wednesday, eight days after the polls closed.

Election administrator Robert Antonetti would not say how many votes were at stake. He also did not fully explain why it took election officials so long to retrieve voting machines from the precincts or to alert the public to the problem.

Board attorney Robert McGinley said only that the board wanted to count the results in public, at one time, to assuage concerns about the process.

Problems with voting cards in Montgomery County and with poll workers in Baltimore have been widely scrutinized and made the subject of daily news accounts since the Sept. 12 primary.

“If they’re bringing new machines in eight days after the count, that’s outrageous,“ said Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson, who is locked in a tight race against Ingrid Turner for the District 4 County Council seat. Turner was ahead by 44 votes in unofficial returns before Wednesday's count.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,“ said Jonathan Shurberg, an attorney representing candidate Donna Edwards, whose tight race with U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn for the 4th district congressional seat might be affected by the outcome of the count.

“As well-intentioned as these people may be, I don’t have any confidence that there is an accurate vote count going on. I don’t have that,“ Shurberg added.

Separate counts were underway of absentee ballots and of provisional ballots.

Antonetti said the votes that were being counted Wednesday were in machines that were left at various precincts primary election night. They could not be retrieved at the time, because the buildings they were in were locked.

The machines were returned to the election board's warehouse in Upper Marlboro throughout the week, even as complaints about a variety of problems with the balloting mounted.

As workers opened the cases holding the machines yesterday, they showed the candidates and reporters the untouched tamper tape, which is supposed to assure the board that the machines have not been disturbed.

But some candidates were hearing about the voting machines for the first time on Wednesday morning.

The county elections board was also required by the state to submit a plan of corrective action yesterday in anticipation of the Nov. 7 general election, saying how officials planned to avoid the types of technical foul-ups that plagued their operation during the primary. The county’s corrective action plan is expected to spell out how the board will recruit and train technicians, which the state elections board said they lacked. The state board sent a letter to the county board on Saturday ordering them to file the plan.

Technical problems prevented 136 of the 206 precincts from being able to transmit results electronically to the Upper Marlboro headquarters Tuesday night, leading to major delays. The most recent vote count posted on the board's web site listed 99.04 percent complete, with 207 of 209 precincts reporting.

Several candidates called for a thorough investigation into the process.

‘‘We have another election in two months ... this process has to be fixed by then,” said Alexander Krughoff, spokesman for candidate Rushern Baker, who lost his race against County Executive Jack B. Johnson. ‘‘We just think the integrity of the entire process fell apart.”

Members of the County Council requested that Antonetti come before them for a hearing next week.

Edwards on Friday threatened to file a lawsuit challenging the returns from machines she says were left unsecured overnight in a parking lot. But she held off actually filing, pending results from the absentee and provisional ballots.

‘‘I’m really concerned, deeply concerned, about the integrity of the election,” Edwards said.

Wynn spokesman Alon Kupferman said the congressman supported a call for an independent investigation, but panned what he called Edwards’ attempts to selectively investigate the process.

Bobby Henry, who came out behind County Councilman Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Dist. 4) in the race for state Senate in District 23, also said he would file a petition calling for a recount in his district. He threatened a lawsuit, citing complaints that some of the votes in Bowie were missing and that his name was omitted from the ballot in one polling location.

Besides Henry’s and Edwards’ races, others that could be affected by the vote counts are the District 4 County Council race and the District 26 House of Delegates race.

Antonetti has defended the board’s performance, saying the election workers valued accuracy over speed.

He said it was not unusual for judges to leave a few voting machines at their precincts, which happened with the machines cracked open Wednesday. And he said the board had 190 technicians – plenty to cover all the polling stations. But one problem he noted was that the technicians were training on the wrong model of the E-Poll Books, which hold voter registration information.

Antonetti said the technicians and the 412 chief judges will have to attend an extra training session before the general election.

‘‘Those that don’t show up [to training], we will not allow them to work,” Antonetti said.

In a Sept. 16 letter to Antonetti, State Administrator Linda Lamone wrote that improvements must be made to ‘‘ensure the public confidence in the voting process is restored for [the] General Election.”

Staff Writer Jason Flanagan contributed to this article.

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