By Megha Rajagopalan and Erin Bryant
ANNAPOLIS – Misplaced electronic cards, untrained poll judges and malfunctioning new computers helped make a mess of Tuesday’s primaries in two of the state’s largest jurisdictions. Officials spent much of Wednesday trying to sort out what happened, how to correct it and whom to blame.
In Montgomery County, where some polls opened more than three hours late because new voting machines would not work without electronic cards that were not delivered, County Executive Doug Duncan demanded that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich fire the county’s two top election officials.
In Baltimore, where many polling places opened several hours late because election judges failed to arrive, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O’Malley, Ehrlich’s opponent in the November election, said the mess was due to the governor’s “lack of oversight” and “incompetence.” He called the election “a national embarrassment for Maryland.”
For his part, Ehrlich blamed the Democrat-controlled state Senate for forcing the state to adopt complicated new machines without proper training.
“The overarching problem was that local election boards were required to implement a new, highly complex voting technology without sufficient time or training,” said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s spokesman.
Officials of both the local board of election and the state attorney general’s office said they would investigate the problems in hopes of correcting them by November. But that gave little solace to candidates who as late as Wednesday morning still did not know whether they had won or not because of the slow returns from Montgomery County and Baltimore, which between them have about a quarter of the state’s voters.
“It was nothing more than rank ineptitude,” said Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, who Tuesday won the Democratic nomination for attorney general. “The Montgomery County Board of Elections has one mission … and they blew it.”
Polls in both Baltimore City and Montgomery County stayed open an extra hour Tuesday to make up for the delays. In some cases, paper provisional ballots were handed out, and after they ran out voters had to endure long lines or leave.
Duncan late Wednesday called on Ehrlich to fire Nancy Dacek, the chair of the board of elections, and demanded that the board fire Margaret Jurgensen, the director of the elections office.
Electronic errors in Montgomery County’s new voting machines happened in part because the machines there had never been field tested, said Dacek. The board received the machines only last week, and printers that had to be connected to the machine arrived only three days before primaries.
“Training 5,000 people on electronic poll books in less than a week is not possible,” Dacek said.
She said hundreds of plastic cards needed to access the new voting machines were not sealed in plastic bags sent to Montgomery County precincts along with rubber bands and pencils.
In addition, some machines, which are supposed to quickly search for voters’ names electronically so judges don’t have to sift through paper cards, would overheat after five or six uses and need restarting, Dacek said.
Dacek blamed the Democrat-dominated General Assembly for the electronic machines arriving late. Because the courts struck down an early voting bill weeks before primaries, all money and work the Board of Elections had put toward implementing the measure was wasted, she said.
“Even the state didn’t know what they were supposed to be telling us,” Dacek said. “I give the poll workers all sorts of kudos and congratulations for doing what they did as well as they did.”
In Baltimore, the complexity of the new electronic system may have been daunting for some elections workers, according to Elections Administrator Gene M. Raynor, who guessed that this may have been why some officials did not show up at the polls.
“They saw the thickness of the training manual and they thought ‘Oh boy,'” Raynor said.
Most reports of no-show judging officials, particularly Republican representatives, occurred in Baltimore. Recruiting enough Republican judges has been an issue for 40 years, Raynor said.
Some Baltimore judges were not assigned polling stations until election morning which may explain absences across the state.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office said it is a crime for judges not to show up at the polls, but said the Attorney General has no plans to prosecute anyone for that offense.
Raynor said that he was going to look into recruiting tech-savvy young people from local universities to work as voting judges and help ease the transition into the new voting system.
“The average age of an election judge is deceased,” said Raynor, commenting that the older generation, himself included, often aren’t as capable with computers.
Rick Abbruzzese, O’Malley’s spokesman, said the governor should have made sure local election boards trained judges to properly use the machines.
“It will be an issue in this campaign,” he predicted.
There is no consensus how many people voted or how the errors affected voter turnout. Raynor estimated that Baltimore City had a 28 percent voter turn-out on Tuesday, slightly down from the 32.5 percent in the 2006 primary. But he did not think that the new electronic system had deterred people.
Until all votes are counted, it will be difficult to say whether the glitches helped or hurt any candidate significantly, election officials said. The governor’s office invited voters to call a hotline to complain about voting problems. 103 people called from all over the state, complaining primarily about machine malfunctions, Fawell said.