A Critical Error in Early Voting

By Adam Pagnucco.

On Saturday, I was given a ballot by election officials at the Wheaton early voting site that would have allowed me to vote for John Sarbanes for Congress.  The problem is that I live in Jamie Raskin’s district.  And after I posted the story on Facebook, three friends of mine said that similar things happened to them.  This incident points to a significant flaw in the early voting system that needs to be addressed.

To understand what happened, let’s review how the early voting system works.  A key difference between early voting and election day voting is that voters are allowed to use any early voting site in their county regardless of where they live.  So unlike election day voting at a precinct location, election officials at early voting sites are responsible for making sure that voters get ballots reflecting the districts in which they live.

The first step in early voting is a check-in, during which a staffer verifies a voter’s identity and gives the voter a registration slip indicating his or her precinct and district information.  Next, the voter proceeds to a table at which another staffer checks the registration slip and gives the voter an appropriate ballot.  The voter then fills out the ballot in a booth and proceeds to a scanning device, where the registration slip is collected and the ballot is inserted, scanned and retained.  Lastly, the much-desired “I Voted” stickers are disbursed.

In my case, I checked in, got a registration slip reflecting my information accurately and was given a ballot.  When I started marking the ballot, I noticed that one of my choices for Congress was John Sarbanes.  That was a problem since I don’t live in his district – I live in Congressional District 8, home of Jamie Raskin.  I returned to the ballot table and told them I had the wrong ballot.  Upon checking, the election staffer said, “Good catch,” gave me a new ballot and told me to take my old ballot to a different area.  Acting on instructions, I marked the old ballot as spoiled, folded it in half and put it in an envelope containing other spoiled ballots.  I asked the election staff what would have happened had I indeed voted for Sarbanes.  They said they didn’t know.

Once I told the story on Facebook, two of my friends told me that they were initially given the wrong ballots by staffers at early voting, but the mistakes were caught before they could bring the ballots to the voting booth.  A third friend said she was given a wrong ballot and, like me, she returned it to the staff to get a correct ballot.  This latter incident happened during the primary.

These were honest mistakes, and whenever human beings are involved in a process like this, mistakes happen.  The problem from a systemic perspective is that there is insufficient redundancy built in to prevent and correct these mistakes.  Once the ballot staffer gives a voter a ballot, there is no person other than the voter who can make sure that the ballot is the correct one.  By the time the voter approaches the scanner, there is no way to be sure that the ballot accurately reflects that voter’s districts.  And when the ballot is scanned, it’s too late to tell because there is nothing on the ballot itself identifying the precinct of the voter who cast it.  For all anyone knows, that ballot is accurately counted.  A paper recount would not find otherwise.  Worst of all, there is no way to track these mistakes.  Unless people like me report their experiences, it would be hard to know that this problem is occurring at all.

The result of all this is that an unknown number of ballots are being cast for candidates by voters who do not live in their districts.  The scale of that problem is mitigated somewhat because this is a presidential year, and the only variability in this county’s ballots occurs between the three Congressional Districts.  But in a mid-term year, there will be elections in five County Council districts and eight state legislative districts in addition to the three Congressional Districts.  There will be many ballot permutations reflecting voters who live in different configurations of these districts.  So the potential for mistakes is much higher.  Relying on individual voters to prevent these mistakes is not an adequate solution.

It’s too late to correct these errors for the ballots already cast, and unless election officials act immediately, it may be too late to clean up the process for this election.  But there is time to build safeguards into the system for the 2018 elections, during which the issue will be even more critical.  The State Board of Elections and their overseers in the General Assembly need to make sure that this problem gets fixed.