Gear­ing up for Novem­ber’s elec­tion

Our view: More elec­tion judges, long-term re­forms are needed

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Given the prob­lems that be­dev­iled Bal­ti­more City’s pri­mary elec­tion in April, city of­fi­cials clearly needed to act to avoid a rep­e­ti­tion of that episode in Novem­ber’s gen­eral elec­tion, when many more peo­ple are ex­pected to vote. That why on Wed­nes­day the Board of Elec­tions ap­proved spend­ing $130,000 to hire and train 1,000 more precinct judges for the gen­eral elec­tion six weeks from now. Manag­ing an elec­tion that size — the city has 296 precincts, more than any other ju­ris­dic­tion in the state — is a mas­sive lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge, but it’s es­sen­tial the process be car­ried out in a way that al­lows vot­ers to have con­fi­dence in the in­tegrity of the re­sults.

Af­ter April’s pri­mary, state in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded that about 1,700 bal­lots had been han­dled im­prop­erly, in­clud­ing 1,200 pro­vi­sional bal­lots that were scanned into the tally with­out judges hav­ing ver­i­fied that vot­ers were el­i­gi­ble, flash drives with vot­ing re­sults that went miss­ing for hours and an ad­di­tional 500 pro­vi­sional bal­lots that were never even con­sid­ered. No doubt part of the blame for those prob­lems must fall to the fact that hun­dreds of precinct judges, who were sup­posed to su­per­vise the vot­ing and set­tle po­ten­tial dis­putes, sim­ply failed to show up for work on Elec­tion Day.

The prob­lems were so se­vere that state elec­tions of­fi­cials had to tem­po­rar­ily de­cer­tify the elec­tion re­sults un­til the sna­fus were sorted out, and even then a group of ac­tivists asked the courts to or­der a re-do of the en­tire elec­tion. The City Coun­cil is slated to hold hear­ings next month into why the sys­tem broke down, but from what we al­ready know about the dif­fi­cul­ties vot­ers and elec­tion of­fi­cials faced in April it’s clear there’s no sim­ple so­lu­tion to the prob­lem.

Start with the precinct judges. Each precinct is sup­posed to be staffed by at least two judges, one rep­re­sent­ing each of the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties. But in a city like Bal­ti­more, where nine out of 10 vot­ers are reg­is­tered Democrats, it can be dif­fi­cult to find enough GOP judges to staff ev­ery precinct. Add to the that the rel­a­tively low pay those mon­i­tors get — just $165 for reg­u­lar judges and $225 for chief judges for an ex­tremely long day of work — and there’s not a lot of in­cen­tive for peo­ple to sign up for the job, es­pe­cially given that precinct sizes can vary enor­mously, rang­ing from a few hun­dred vot­ers at some polling sta­tions all the way up to sev­eral thou­sand at oth­ers.

That can mean a lot of work, es­pe­cially for the chief judges, who are re­spon­si­ble not only for the over­all su­per­vi­sion of their precincts but also for all the ad­min­is­tra­tive la­bor that goes with it, such as re­turn­ing bal­lots and vot­ing sup­plies to head­quar­ters af­ter the elec­tion, sign­ing pay­roll slips and other bu­reau­cratic chores. More­over, there’s vir­tu­ally no penalty for judges who don’t show up. Though they un­dergo sev­eral hours of train­ing be­fore the elec­tion, it’s ba­si­cally a one-day job at just over $10 an hour, so re­cruit­ment is dif­fi­cult.

Be­sides the short­age of judges, there’s also the chronic dearth of re­sources for other as­pects of the elec­tion process, such as equip­ment, sup­plies and voter ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach pro­grams. Vot­ers need to know how the sys­tem works, where their polling places are lo­cated and their hours of op­er­a­tion, plus how to use the ma­chines once they get into the vot­ing booth. That in­for­ma­tion is sup­posed to be mailed out to vot­ers prior to Elec­tion Day, but the cost of do­ing so can run into the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars, forc­ing elec­tions of­fi­cials to scrimp on other things, such as cre­at­ing in­struc­tional videos for poll work­ers, pub­lish­ing man­u­als for precinct judges and re­cruit­ing the kind of peo­ple who can be counted on to serve re­spon­si­bly at all lev­els of the process.

Fi­nally, any time the sys­tem changes, as it did this year, it’s a chal­lenge for both the peo­ple op­er­at­ing the new equip­ment as well as for vot­ers who use it to cast their bal­lots. Bal­ti­more hasn’t used pa­per bal­lots in decades, and vot­ers here had never used a scan­ner to reg­is­ter their choices un­til this year. The com­bi­na­tion of un­fa­mil­iar new equip­ment, pro­ce­dures and sys­tems, cou­pled with in­ex­pe­ri­enced or un­re­li­able judges in what was Bal­ti­more’s largest pri­mary in 20 years — some 140,000 vot­ers showed up at the polls in April — made for the per­fect storm of er­rors and ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties that char­ac­ter­ized the last elec­tion.

With at least 100,000 more vot­ers ex­pected to cast bal­lots in Novem­ber, of­fi­cials should be tak­ing ev­ery pos­si­ble pre­cau­tion to en­sure it doesn’t hap­pen again. For now, that means hir­ing more elec­tion judges. In the long run, the city should con­sider re­forms like re­duc­ing the num­ber of precincts and al­low­ing in­de­pen­dent or third-party judges to serve in lieu of Repub­li­cans.

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