By ANJU KAUR, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (Dec. 11, 2007) - Moving Maryland's primary date from March to snowier February has left many county election boards worrying about weather problems around Election Day.
The elections officers must ensure voting equipment is delivered to polls in the week before the Feb. 12 election, judges reach their polling places when needed and ballots get to the county offices for volunteers to count the votes.
Historically, five of the 10 largest snowfalls at Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport occurred in mid February, according to the University of Maryland's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science statistics from 1948 to 2003. The latest one was in 2003.
That chance of foul skies makes it "just a bit more necessary to have everything lined up with road crews and police officers" to clear the roads and provide emergency transportation for election workers, said Brittani Thomas, election director for Queen Anne's County.
Howard County, too, has had to develop more and more streamlined back-up plans to anticipate fickle forecasts, said Betty Nordaas, the county's election director.
For example, instead of clearing entire parking lots at 61 schools used as polling places, snow removal crews will only clear the entrance area to save time, she said.
The county is also looking for reserve election judges, at least 40 per party, in case any of its 1,100 judges can't make it to polling places in time. And the county is assuring contact information is widely distributed, Nordaas said.
The state's central and western counties typically get the most snow—Howard County included, said Kenneth Pickering, former Maryland state climatologist.
"(But) certainly there is a better chance for snow (for all counties) in February than March," he said.
Maryland was among many states that scheduled earlier primaries in attempt to make more of an impact in the presidential contest. That shifted all deadlines associated with the election forward.
"I don't like the date change," said Jacqueline McDaniel, election director of Baltimore County. "I'm afraid of the snow storms, foul weather. Older folks may not (be able to) come out," not only to vote but to serve as election judges.
The county will provide its four-wheel-drive vehicles and volunteer its police officers and other staff to help any of its 2,900 election judges to their polling places, if needed, she said.
Montgomery County is handling the weather question in part by placing judges at polling places in their home precincts, said Marjorie Roher, spokeswoman for the county's election board.
Republican judges, especially, have had to travel quite far in the past because they are rare in some areas of the mostly Democratic county, she said.
The election board will also inform snow removal fleets of polling place locations so those streets can be cleared early, Roher added. And if weather is still a problem after the election, ballots will be dropped off at regional locations where they can then be trucked to the election office for counting.
"It's all stuff that has been in mind before, but now we have to make sure everything is set up," Roher said.
For Prince George's County, the greatest concern is that people will not come to the election judge training sessions already under way, said Alisha Alexander, the county's election judge.
The board will provide classes through Feb. 8 to make sure all of the county's 3,000 judges find a good-weather day to attend, she said.
James Massey, election director of Harford County, said he made sure all chief judges were trained before the holidays. In January, there will be a "frenzy" to train the rest of the county's 900 election judges.
Caroline County, on the other hand, is creating its first contingency plan for weather. Snow is not much of an issue in March, but February is more unpredictable, said Sandy Logan, the county's election director.
Logan and all other directors will meet with state election board representatives next week in Annapolis to share and adopt best-practices ideas into their weather emergency plans. Finalized local plans must be submitted to the state weeks before the election.
Several counties are not expecting to change their existing plans.
As one of Maryland's western-most counties, Allegany County has had a strong weather-emergency plan in place since 1988, when the primary was moved from May to March, said Kitty Davis, the county's election administrator.
"The only issue we had (this time) was that we lost some of our snow birds," Davis said, referring to retirees who vacation in warmer states for the winter. These long-time judges would come back in March for the election, but they are not willing to do that in February, Davis said. Still, the county has managed to fill all of its 250 election judge openings.
Like Allegany, election directors in Dorchester, Cecil and Worchester counties all expect to stick with current weather plans.