By Megha Rajagopalan
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - As the state's leading politicians urge voters to request absentee ballots instead of going to the polls, local elections officials are contending with a predictable flood of requests for absentee ballots.
But the absentee ballots being requested haven't yet arrived from the printer, and local officials worry that they won't have time to get a ballot to every voter who wants one. The firm that is printing the ballots says they will be delivered on schedule and that local officials have no reason to worry.
State law does not specify the number of days before an election absentee ballots should arrive at local election boards. But local elections officials complain the ballots are unusually late, a troubling setback in a year that has brought a barrage of applications for absentee ballots.
"It has me very concerned," said Terri Narciszewski, supervisor of the absentee ballot department at the Baltimore City Board of Elections. "I don't know if it's a matter of people working overtime, farming out the printing to other printers, whatever, but the state should do whatever needs to be done to get these ballots here."
Narciszewski, who has held her post for 20 years, said absentee ballots typically arrive about 30 days before Election Day, which this year is Nov. 7. Officials of three other major Maryland jurisdictions also said they had expected the ballots earlier, judging by previous years.
Narciszewski said she expected them to arrive last week. This has her concerned because absentee ballot requests have already poured in. The city has received about 6,000 requests to date—more than twice the number of requests before the primary—and Narciszewski says she expects "a lot more."
Voters are requesting absentee ballots in such large numbers this year because of glitches that have plagued the new electronic voting machines built by Diebold Elections Systems Inc. Ironically, Diebold is also printing the ballots that local officials say are late.
Michael Morrill, who works for a public relations firm that represents Diebold, said that most counties will receive the ballots Thursday and the rest on Friday. He said the company is delivering them on schedule and that there is no reason for local elections officials to claim they are late.
Officials of the state board of elections, which is responsible for making sure the ballots are delivered to local boards, also say the ballots are not late. But both state and local officials agree on one thing: the worries over the new electronic voting machines working are misplaced and voters are still best off going to the polls.
Morrill pointed out technical problems in the primary came from a check-in machine that voters never touch. The touch-screen machines that are used for voting worked fine, he said.
The flood of requests for paper absentee ballots comes in response to state politicians, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, who have urged voters to vote absentee instead of going to the polls because of glitches in machines that created a mess in the Sept. 12 primary.
On top of this, Maryland's General Assembly last year passed a law over Ehrlich's veto that allows voters to cast absentee ballots without giving a reason. Election officials say the law opened the doors to the large influx of absentee ballot requests.
In the 2002 elections, the state received about 65,000 requests for absentee ballots, said Mary Cramer Wagner, state director of voter registration and petitions division. This year, there have already been over 66,000 requests with more than three weeks before elections-- and the stream of applications shows no signs of slowing.
Like Diebold, state elections officials say the ballots aren't late.
"Obviously, because the number of absentee ballot applications has increased, a lot of these jurisdictions would like to have them the next day," Wagner said. "But there is a process. It's not going to happen overnight."
But local elections officials say they are frustrated. The later ballots arrive, the less time elections workers have to send them out.
"Every day that they're not here costs us time," said Jacqueline McDaniel, director of the Baltimore County Board of Elections. "Once they get here, they have to be unpacked. We have to itemize them, record everything, put them where they belong, and then after all that, then we can start stuffing the ballots."
Also, absentee ballots can take weeks to arrive in locations overseas. If they arrive too late, some absentees may not be able to vote, local elections officials said.
"We have people in the Peace Corps and their mail doesn't get to them in a timely fashion to begin with," Narciszewski said. "You add this in and it's not good."
Local elections officials criticized politicians for encouraging voters to use absentee ballots as an alternative to the polls.
"There is nothing wrong with our voting system," McDaniel said. "I wish [politicians] would sit back and think about what they're doing before they mouth off like this. It's just wrong."
State officials and Diebold expect local elections boards to receive all absentee ballots by Friday, but some local elections officials are skeptical. "Hopefully that's true, but we've had so many promises from the state that have never been fulfilled," said Nancy Dacek, president of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. "This whole election season has been one of those promises that never came true."