Thursday, September 14, 2006


In a statement sure to rank alongside "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!" in the book of misunderestimated quotations, Nancy Dacek, president of the elections board in Montgomery County, Maryland, told the Washington Post: "It wasn't a screw-up. It was a mistake."

It was a screw-up. Such a big screw-up, in fact, that a synonym for "screw" beginning with the letter "F" should be used to describe it. It was a screw-up of major proportions.

I have been in Roanoke for annual training of local electoral board members by the State Board of Elections, so it is rather ironic that I learned late about the horrible performance by election officials in Maryland. (I simply wasn't watching the TV news as I normally do, not paying attention while preoccupied elsewhere.)

For others coming late to the story, here it is in a nutshell:

Polling places in Montgomery County opened up for the primary election on Tuesday with all the equipment in place except for one vital item -- the access cards (sort of like ATM cards) that voters use to activate the voting machines. The access cards also include information about which ballot the voter sees on the machine. (If there are two party primaries on the same day, for instance, a Republican voter gets a card to activate a Republican ballot, while a Democratic voter gets a card that activates the Democratic ballot.)

The person in charge of packing the bags with equipment that precinct officials need to run their polls simply forgot to pack the cards. As David Montgomery reported in the Post Style section:

Here's what happened: Elections workers assembling packages for the polls somehow forgot to include the plastic ATM-like cards needed for each voter to use the electronic voting system. Workers had a checklist that was supposed to include the vital cards, so no one would forget: A low-tech redundancy against a botched election.

Instead, the cards remained at election headquarters, locked securely in a big blue cage on wheels, hiding in plain sight.

Nobody noticed until the morning of the election when election judges opened their poll packages.

Drivers rushed the cards to the precincts, but meanwhile 10,000 to 12,000 voters had to use paper provisional ballots over the course of the day. Many others reportedly left in frustration without voting, and the whole mess now is attached to that election hangover phrase, "under investigation."

This was a screw-up, plain and simple. It wasn't a mistake, it was malfeasance.

So it's no wonder that politicians and voters are asking for the county's top election officials' heads on a platter:

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan called yesterday for the county's top two elections officials to be fired, saying they were responsible for the widespread voting problems that marred Tuesday's primary election.

Duncan's demand, joined by County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), came on a day of intense activity with the same basic intent: to find out what went wrong and who was to blame.

"I cannot recall a failure of local government like this," Leventhal said, adding that the county's Elections Board needs to be overhauled. "It is absolutely unacceptable and unconscionable."

Even though Dacek is an appointee of Maryland's Republican Governor, Bob Ehrlich, this should not be seen as a partisan issue. While election officials in Maryland and Virginia (and elsewhere in the country) are technically political appointees, in practice they take off their political hats for the running of elections and are essentially non-partisan. Their job is to serve the voters and candidates in as neutral and even-handed a fashion as possible. That is their mission and it should be their principle, too.

It is important to note that the electronic voting machines in Montgomery County did not fail. People failed. People failed to do the jobs they were charged with doing. As one expert told the Washington Post:
"The thing that gets lost in many current discussions of election reform is the degree to which elections are an intensely human affair," says Doug Chapin, director of in Washington, a nonpartisan clearing house for election reform information. "In an election you've got millions of voters encountering thousands of poll workers at hundreds of polling locations, which creates an almost exponential opportunity for error."
The problems extended beyond just one county, too, and the problems were essentially human ones. In some jurisdictions, for instance, some polling places opened late because the precinct officials ("election judges," in Maryland's parlance) showed up late. In Baltimore there were reports that some of the election judges appeared to be "intoxicated."

Because of the delays and inability to use the voting equipment, paper ballots were issued, to be used provisionally after a judge ordered polls to be open for an extra hour. But some of the paper ballots were marked for the wrong precinct, and in other precincts, there were too few ballots, so voters were using scraps of paper to mark their choices. Some were using pencils to mark their ballots! (Pencil marks can be erased and rewritten; unless one is using an optical scan system that specifically calls for using a No. 2 Ticonderoga, a ballot should be marked in blue or black ink.)

Widespread use of paper ballots, especially in chaotic circumstances like this, is an invitation to fraud. Paper is easily lost, torn, marred, or re-marked. It lacks the surety and control that electronic balloting does (or, for that matter, that lever machines and, under most circumstances, punchcard machines, did). That is why paper ballots have to be kept even more secure than electronic machines are -- and, as I have written before (on more than one occasion), electronic voting equipment is, or should be, kept highly secure.

So the prize for gross incompetency again goes to Nancy Dacek. From David Montgomery's article in the Washington Post:

Andrea LaRue, a lawyer volunteering on behalf of U.S. Senate candidate Ben Cardin, steps up to the counter with a question for Dacek.

"Do you have a chain-of-custody plan for the provisional ballots?" LaRue asks.

"A who?" Dacek replies.

Who, indeed! And "who" should resign, rather than whine, is Nancy Dacek. Any election official with integrity who presides over an election as badly executed as the one in Maryland was on September 12 would do so, even before receiving a request from voters or elected officials. Taking responsibility is the right thing to do; passing the buck is not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...



I ask this question seriously: Don't those people use a checklist when they pack the bags? I mean a real list, with a tick box, that a real person physically marks?

Maybe I've spent too much time with engineers and programmers, but a checklist, while low-tech, is the way that you insure that a procedure gets done properly.

Tom McCrystal