Absentee ballots a hot item

Elections boards are swamped; some voters will give electronic machines another try Nov. 7

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006

Worried about a repeat of September’s election debacle, voters have been asking for so many absentee ballots that they may cause the very problems they are trying to avoid, local elections officials say.

Many local boards, including Montgomery County’s, have not yet received all their ballots from the printing company, and officials are concerned that some voters may not be able to vote.

Montgomery has received only about 12,000 absentee ballots, 7,000 short of the number of completed voter applications so far, county Elections Director Margaret A. Jurgensen told elections board members in Rockville on Monday afternoon. The deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is Oct. 31.

Still, Diebold Election Systems, which prints the state’s paper ballots, insisted that all of Maryland’s counties and Baltimore city received their requested allotments in the past week and over the weekend.

‘‘Each county orders the amount of ballots they’re expected to need, which is a rolling number,” said Jessica Goon, a Diebold spokeswoman. ‘‘Using a staggered delivery each county receives between 20 and 100 percent of the amount of ballots that they will need.” If counties need more ballots, Diebold will provide them, she said.

The rush on absentee ballots has been attributed to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who have encouraged voters to avoid Maryland’s electronic voting machines and use absentee ballots.

‘‘I think [their] requests had a tremendous effect on the workload of local boards,” said Anne Arundel County Elections Director Barbara L. Fisher, adding that she has already notified the state elections board that her office might need help counting absentee ballots.

In Montgomery County, where missing voter access cards and problems with the electronic voter check-in system led to long delays at most precincts during September’s primary election, the demand for absentee ballots is taking a toll. Elections officials have hired 15 temporary workers to keep up with the demand, and six to 10 more are needed, said spokeswoman Marjorie Roher.

Critics say elections officials should have been better prepared.

‘‘If elections managers at state and local levels didn’t anticipate that there would be a greater demand for absentee ballots with the law change and after bungling the September primary, then shame on them,” Duncan spokesman David S. Weaver said, referring to a new state law that lifted restrictions on absentee voting. ‘‘It appears there was not a lot of forethought given to this effort.

Questions and answers on voting

Who can vote?

You must be a U.S. citizen, a Montgomery County resident and at least 18 on or before Nov. 7.

Absentee ballot deadlines

Oct. 31 — to request an absentee ballot. Go to www. montgomerycountymd.gov⁄content⁄elections
⁄2006absapplication-eng. pdf or call 240-777-VOTE.

Nov. 7 or earlier — must be received at the county elections board by 8 p.m. on Election Day; if mailed, it must have a postmark showing it was mailed before Nov. 7.

Where do I vote?

Call 240-777-8500 or go to www. 777vote.org, click on ‘‘polling places”

How do I get there? Check out www.777vote.org for directions and for information on Ride On routes Help!

Elections board — 240-777-VOTE, 240-777-8500 or 800-735-2258 (Md. relay).

Elections board Web site – www.777vote.org

Elections board address — 751 Twinbrook Parkway, Rockville.

Elections board e-mail — elections@ montgomerycountymd.gov

Although the demand for absentee ballots for the Nov. 7 election has exceeded that for most previous general elections, and primary election problems remain fresh on the minds of voters, some Montgomery residents say they will vote the old-fashioned way: by going to the polls.

‘‘I generally trust the polls, said Laura Baxter, 40, of Darnestown, who added that she is thinking about casting an absentee ballot. ‘‘Voters should have confidence in the system, and if they’re urging people to vote by absentee ballot, then there’s a lack of confidence. I kind of like going to the polling place, even when I have to wait in line.”

Mary Brock, 61, of North Potomac, said she, too, will cast her ballot in person. ‘‘I like the voting machines,” she said. ‘‘Maybe I’m Pollyanna and have too much faith in the election judges.”

For Ruth Clyburn, going to the polls on Election Day is more about civic duty than personal comfort. ‘‘My entire family had problems at the polls during the primary. I made me wonder was this Montgomery County in 2006 or Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s,” said Clyburn, 71, of Silver Spring. ‘‘But I just couldn’t leave. My vote was too important to leave.”

Other voters, including Carey Howard of Takoma Park, are opting for traditional voting because they were unaware of the Halloween deadline to apply for an absentee ballot. ‘‘I have no confidence in Diebold and the voting machines, but [voting at the polls] is better than not voting at all,” said Howard, 53, who thought the application deadline passed last month. ‘‘Had I known I still had time to apply, I might have.”

Along with the tens of thousands of absentee votes expected, about 350,000 county voters are expected at the polls on Nov. 7, Jurgensen told the elections board on Monday. Once provisional and absentee ballots are tabulated, the county expects to certify all election results by Nov. 21. Absentee and provisional ballots are counted beginning on the Thursday after an election.

A voting industry trade organization hired by the county elections board to review September’s problems completed its preliminary report on Monday. A final report from The Elections Center of Houston is due at the end of the month. The report will not be made public until after the final installment is complete, Roher said.