By Megha Rajagopalan, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - After electronic glitches made a mess of primary elections in some places, voting officials vowed that general elections would progress without a bump.
But with less than two weeks remaining before the Nov. 7 general election, many county elections boards have received only a small fraction of the paper ballots they need for use as absentee ballots or standby provisional ballots - a troubling turn in a year that has brought the most requests for the ballots in the history of non-presidential races in Maryland.
County elections officials, many of whom say that paper ballots have never been this late in coming before, are increasingly worried that they will not be able to get absentee ballots out to voters on time. Some are so desperate they have begun photocopying paper ballots on office copiers so they will have something to give to voters.
"It's really terrible," said Robert J. Antonetti Sr., elections administrator in Prince George's County. "Time is running out. It's going to deny people the right to vote."
A flood of requests for absentee ballots was prompted by leading politicians, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, who have urged voters to avoid the polls because of the foul-ups that marred the Sept. 12 primary.
Diebold Election Systems Inc. - the company many say is responsible for the electronic glitches that marred the primary election - is also the company that is printing the paper ballots. Earlier this month, Diebold said that despite the publicly expressed concerns of elections officials, the printing of the paper ballots was on schedule and all counties would have them by Oct. 14.
Instead, county officials say the paper ballots have trickled in, a box or two a day, far outnumbered by thousands of requests for them.
Prince George's and Anne Arundel Counties have received only 20 percent of the ballots they requested, county elections officials said. Howard County has received only 18 percent, Montgomery County has received 60 percent and Baltimore City has received "less than half" of the ballots requested.
A spokeswoman for Diebold said the ballots are late because such a large number of paper ballots for use as absentee and provisional ballots - 1.5 million - was requested. The demand for absentee ballots this year is close to demand in a presidential race, and on top of that, officials requested thousands of extra ballots to be used as provisional ballots to have on hand in case the touch-screen voting machines experience glitches.
There is no difference between paper ballots to be used as absentee ballots and those to be used as provisional ballots, elections officials said.
All counties should receive all their paper ballots by Monday, a spokeswoman for Diebold said. But county election officials are skeptical.
"They said we'd get them Monday, they didn't come Monday, so then we were supposed to get them Wednesday," said Armstead Crawley Jones, president of Baltimore's board of elections. "I'll believe it when I see it. That's how I am now. We've been promised and promised and promised."
On top of the overall delay, some county boards haven't received any ballots for certain districts. That means no absentee voter in those districts has received a ballot yet, and absentee voters in those districts who have left town may not receive them in time.
"If they don't get their ballots in time, and if they're not sent back in a timely fashion, their vote is not going to count," said Jacqueline McDaniel, director of the Baltimore County board of elections.
Before the 2002 elections, county boards were responsible for getting their own ballots printed. Now Diebold prints all the state's paper ballots, the bulk of them at a plant in Washington state.
"When we had to provide them, the state raised hell if we didn't have them 30 days before the election," Jones said. "Now we have to rely on them to give us everything. That's one of the worst things [the state] did."
Typically, county elections boards receive paper ballots about a month before elections. The ballots are then sent to voters who request absentee ballots. Voters must send them back by the day before the election.
This year's delay has created a host of difficulties for election officials. For one thing, Marylanders who are voting by absentee ballot from abroad need to be sent ballots about 30 days before the election, Antonetti said. This year, because most of the ballots haven't arrived in several counties, that hasn't been possible.
County elections officials say they have scrambled to make sure voters who are out of the country get their absentee ballots before anyone else, but sometimes, there aren't enough ballots to send out.
For instance, Montgomery and Prince George's counties were reduced to photocopying ballots on office copiers in an effort to get them out on time to voters who are abroad. Once the copies come back, elections officials intend to transcribe them by hand onto official ballots - a time-consuming process.
"This band-aid approach is terrible," said Antonetti. "It's unbelievable that this should happen. It's a plain mess."
Using photocopies in lieu of ballots is unusual but legal, according to the office of the attorney general. But traditionally, ballots are only transcribed if they are damaged.
Also, a program in which county elections workers visit nursing homes to help residents with their ballots is suffering, Antonetti said. Because the ballots are arriving so late, some nursing homes may not get visits.
County elections officials worry a backlog of absentee ballots, the bulk of which are expected to pour in this week to many counties, will create a time crunch and absentee voters will not receive their ballots in time.
"By Thursday, we could have a tremendous backup," said Barbara Fisher, director of the Anne Arundel County board of elections, adding that she expects the ballots to go out later than usual. "We're crunched for time."
Election workers expect to work weekends and overtime to make sure all the absentee ballots are sent out when they come in, officials said.
"This election has cost us more in overtime than we've ever had to pay," Jones said. "Our method of counting them has regressed. We're going to be hand-feeding absentee ballots into a machine."
On top of that, county elections boards are fielding calls from angry voters who requested absentee ballots weeks ago but still haven't received them.
"We get complaints all day every day," McDaniel said. "Everybody is calling about them."
Elections officials say they hope the ballots arrive this week, as Diebold has promised. But many remain skeptical. "Their track record is not good," Antonetti said. "Maybe they'll get here, maybe they won't. But you can't run an election on a maybe."