Volume 14, Issue 46 ~ November 16 - November 22, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Our Day at the Polls

One vote can decide a race, but does every vote count?

You can’t argue that claim, especially this year in all the exceptionally tight campaigns across the country — as well as in Anne Arundel, where it was Saturday before we learned that Republican John Leopold of Pasadena bested Democrat Sheriff George Johnson in a squeaker for county executive.

In Calvert County, Barbara Stinnett leads Mark Frazer by only 11 votes for the fifth seat on Calvert County’s Board of Commissioners.

In District 30, Ron George leads Barbara Samorajczyk by 66 votes, while in District 31, only 11 votes separate Don Dwyer from three-term Democrat Joan Cadden. We’ll have to wait until Nov. 17 for the official word on all three races.

A lesson in Civics 101: Think of the regrets of citizens who favored a candidate but didn’t go to the polls because they didn’t think their one vote would count.

The Smell of a Story

This writer spent all day at the polls, in Precinct 14 of Anne Arundel County’s District 3, and it was a long day.

After all the fuss about mix-ups and complaints during the September primaries when Maryland switched to computer balloting, my curiosity got the better of me. I volunteered to be an election judge.

I wanted to see how the system worked, and what better time than when it’s under fire? Diebold had become a naughty word across the state; it’s the name of the company that installed the new voting machines that many voters didn’t trust. They feared their votes wouldn’t count, being lost somewhere within a computer glitch.

Others feared computer hackers could and would invade the system to add or subtract votes for any or all candidates. I smelled a story.


Ah, but shenanigans can backfire. Just ask my sister Ruth, a New Englander, who had just married and moved from our town to another. When the Democrat poll workers arrived at her house to drive her to the polls, they ignored her doubts of eligibility and promptly escorted her to the polling place.

She voted, and for town clerk her pick was a former neighbor, a Republican, who won by one vote, and — as it turned out, by one ineligible vote — hers. “Served the Democrats right,” says Ruth to this day.

My Day at the Polls

In Precinct 14, there were about 1,500 voters, and none of them was as terrified as this writer on the morning of election day. That includes the candidates. Everything goes via computer, and I’m computer illiterate. I know how to write a column on one, also how to play cribbage, but nothing else. Yet there I sat as a check-in judge with a computer in front of me. I was absolutely intimidated.

I had taken a four-hour crash course at headquarters covering the duties of my appointment. But by the time we came to the computer’s role in balloting, it was late, and everyone was in a hurry to head home. Little time was spent on the intricacies of hands-on Diebold computer operation. I was given a three-quarter inch Election Judge Manual and sent home.

The only thing I got from that session was the promise of $25 for attending, and another promise for $110 on election day — but only if I survived it.

On election eve, a few hours or so was spent moving and setting up tables and election gear at Riviera Beach Elementary School, which wasn’t bad. But why did a seasoned judge have to tell me that in past elections there were two voters, one a Green Party candidate and the other a communist, who could be counted on to raise a fuss? That’s all I needed.

There were two check-in computer stations, each tended by a Democrat and a Republican. My partner was Marie, who thankfully was experienced. Thankfully, also, she scanned the computer for voters’ names. I issued voter eligibility slips, had them signed and initialized. We kept tabs on each other, as required.

If the Green and Communist Party voters showed up, they voted quietly. The only problem during voting hours was voter cell phone use; all phones are banned with a single exception: The two chief judges are allowed to call headquarters if someone tries to walk off with the computers, which incidentally performed without a glitch.

The only thing we had to do was insert in the printers fresh rolls of paper used for voter eligibility. A Diebold rep was on hand for hours.

One Lost Vote

We had set up shop about 5am and started checking in voters at 7am. We looked forward to the 8pm closing, for we couldn’t leave the school for anything until then. We closed the polls at 8:00 sharp and started checking voter numbers and ballots cast. Alas, there was a discrepancy of one more voter than ballots counted.

Eight weary judges and poll workers spent more than an hour recounting and recounting again and again by hand the signed paper voter check-in slips, nearly 800 of them. Finally we attributed the missing vote to a silver-haired woman in a hurry. After she checked in, she asked to come back later because the line was long. Told she legally couldn’t, she disappeared. Apparently she left taking her eligibility slip with her.

Enough Said

So if you’re seeking a scandal on electronic voting from this corner, sorry. Things went smoothly. The actual computer voting system appears secure, though outside the computers there can be problems. As there were in Utah, where brother John faxed me the story of a small political party called Personal Choice, which confused many voters of one county in a contest involving U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Voters didn’t read directions. Figuring that the Personal Choice was theirs, 13,400 unknowing voters voted the straight Personal Choice ballot.

After working the polls for a day, methinks much of the problems in the system stem not from the system but from the voters. Enough said.

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