UPPER MARLBORO – The black plastic case bearing the Diebold inscription is lifted from the hundreds packed along the floor of the warehouse adjacent to the offices of the Prince George’s County board of elections.
It is placed on the table and the lock is snipped.
With an air of anticipation, elections officials move closer as the lid is lifted and the voting machine is revealed.
These machines are special. In a few contentious Maryland primary races where winners have yet to be declared, they may contain the votes that decide the election.
Officials have only until Monday, Sept. 25, to find out, but judging from the painstaking, almost ritualistic, handling of the machines Wednesday, meeting that deadline looks doubtful.
The machines in question were left at polling stations in 26 precincts in Prince George’s County on the night of the Sept. 12 primary.
The electronic cards used to record votes were still inside them and the machines were delivered to the Board of Elections late on the day after the primary.
But officials from the County’s Board of Elections did not begin uploading vote counts from the machines at their Upper Marlboro office until Wednesday morning, a week later.
In primary elections still too close to call, the results are eagerly awaited.
“It’s obviously been frustrating. We’ve called for an investigation – it’s more than a week out of the election and we still don’t know what the final numbers are,” said Musa Eubanks, a lawyer for county executive candidate Rushern L. Baker III.
Although Baker conceded to Jack B. Johnson last week, Baker had 48 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 52 percent, with thousands of provisional ballots uncounted.
The new votes could affect the even tighter race between Rep. Albert R. Wynn and Donna Edwards for the 4th district Democratic congressional seat. Wynn currently leads Edwards by less than 3,000 votes.
“We believe in the right for the voters to have their say and while this hasn’t been an optimal process, we are patient and are waiting for the results,” said Alon Kupferman, a spokesman for Wynn.
“The most frustrating thing is we don’t know what’s happening or why it’s happening,” said Eubanks.
“As a constituent, it’s appalling. [The board of elections] has no confidence in their own procedures,” said Jonathan S. Shurberg, a lawyer working with Edwards.
Edwards has announced plans to file a lawsuit based on security concerns over these machines, which were left in their precincts overnight.
Standing over the opened case, Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the Prince George’s County election administrator, repeats the unique serial number of the Diebold voting machine.
He notes that the security seal is intact. The blue tamper tape over the door where the machine’s card is inserted reads “void” when removed.
Antonetti is insistent that the contents of the machines left overnight have not been compromised.
He repeats the unique number on the tape, verifies that a card is inside the machine, then repeats the card’s identification number to be checked by another official using a laptop computer nearby.
“Should we update this?” Antonetti asks of the election officials around him. They agree and the card goes into a reader that uploads the results. The whole process takes around fifteen minutes.
The procedure is repeated for another machine before officials hit a snag. A machine from Eugene Burroughs Middle School has no card. Nor is the card in the red pouch accompanying the voting machine. A blank card must be created, or burned, with authorization data then the voting record can be pulled from the machine itself. After half an hour, the first attempt fails. Another card is burned. It takes a little less than an hour to retrieve the 83 votes from the machine.
In two hours, only 6 of the 26 precincts’ machines have had their votes uploaded before the board breaks for lunch.
“Needless to say, this is not a fast process,” jokes Carl Ruble, vice president of the Board of Elections.
The results for the primaries are supposed to be confirmed by Monday, Sept. 25.
But Shurberg, the Edwards lawyer, is doubtful that the drawn-out elections mess can be cleared up by then. “Not a chance,” he said.