Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Requests Hit Record For Absentee Ballots; Continued Delivery Delays Are Feared

Requests Hit Record For Absentee Ballots
Continued Delivery Delays Are Feared
By Steve Vogel and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers

A record 166,000 Maryland voters had requested absentee ballots as of yesterday, spurred in part by suggestions from the governor and other state officials to abandon electronic voting for the security of a paper ballot.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), among others, urged voters to use absentee ballots in the wake of widespread voting problems during the Sept. 12 primary. The governor's running mate, Kristen Cox, voted by absentee ballot yesterday morning in Baltimore County, and Ehrlich has said he will vote absentee.

The crush of demand for absentee ballots has left local election officials overwhelmed and worried that late delivery of them will make it difficult for everyone to vote.

"The Democratic and Republican politicians are telling them that they should not trust the voting system," said Barbara L. Fisher, elections director for Anne Arundel County. "The whole scenario is ridiculous."

Yet despite widespread problems during the primary, a Washington Post survey shows that an overwhelming majority of Maryland voters are confident that their votes in the Nov. 7 election will be counted.

The poll of slightly more than 1,000 registered voters conducted last week found that 86 percent are confident -- 45 very confident and 41 somewhat confident -- that their votes will be counted.

Officials said the high demand for absentee ballots is also linked to a "no excuses" law passed in the spring that allows registered voters to request absentee ballots without giving a reason.

Whatever the cause, the number of ballots requested is well above the previous high of 137,953, recorded for the 2004 presidential election, according to State Board of Election officials. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, 65,824 voted absentee. The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot is today. Voters can still request absentee ballots in person at local election boards through 8 p.m. Election Day.

The high number of absentee ballots could delay election results in close races. The first count of absentee ballots will begin at 10 a.m. on the Thursday after the election. Each envelope containing a ballot will have to be examined to make sure it has been postmarked by Monday, Nov. 6.

Ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 6 will continue to be accepted until Nov. 17, 10 days after the election, to give ballots mailed from overseas time to arrive.

If previous rates for gubernatorial elections hold, about 1.6 million people -- 60 percent of Maryland's 3.1 million registered voters -- could cast ballots in the election. In previous elections, about 85 percent of those who requested absentee ballots used them. Absentee ballots could therefore make up about 10 percent of the total vote, according to election officials.

"It's absolute hysteria," said John Willis, a Democratic former secretary of state. He warned that chances are far greater that an absentee ballot, rather than one cast via machine, will not be counted because of issues ranging from mail delivery problems to the possibility that a vote will be disqualified because the ballot was not properly filled out. "It'd be amusing if it wasn't so serious," he said.

Ehrlich's opponent in the election, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), has characterized the governor's advocacy of absentee ballots as a form of voter suppression, accusing him of "spending a lot of time trying to confuse people and discourage them from going to the polls and predicting that there are going to be all sorts of problems."

During a visit to Montgomery last week, Ehrlich denied trying to suppress the vote. "I've never figured out how that benefits me," he said.

Ehrlich and other candidates have factored the absentee voters into their campaign strategy, tracking how many of their supporters have requested the ballots and following up to ensure that they mail them. Campaign workers can then concentrate on bringing others out to the polls on Election Day.

As of yesterday morning, Democrats held an edge in the number of absentee ballots requested in Maryland -- 77,836 to 68,014. But the ratio is well short of the nearly 2 to 1 advantage Democrats hold among registered voters.

Because of uncertainty over how many ballots would be needed, election boards requested that 1.1 million be printed for absentee voters and for voters who cast provisional ballots.

Officials with Diebold Election Systems, which manufactures Maryland's electronic voting machines and is printing the ballots, told the state Board of Elections yesterday that they greatly underestimated the number needed.

Most outstanding ballots were sent to county boards over the past several days and the last should be delivered by today, the board was told by Tom Feehan, Maryland project manager for Diebold. But election officials said there may not be enough turnaround time for some voters.

In Prince George's County, officials struggled to fill requests for more than 13,000 absentee ballots -- more than twice as many as four years ago.

Interim Elections Administrator Robert J. Antonetti Sr. said the office had run out of several of the county's 37 ballot styles. More ballots were delivered yesterday, but he said Diebold had still not sent the county's full order.

Staff writers Robert Barnes and John Wagner contributed to this report.