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Mechanical problems cause voting delays in Suburban Maryland
Daily Record. November 4, 2008. by STEVE LASH

ROCKVILLE — Maryland voters in suburban Washington endured long delays — due mostly to mechanical malfunctions — to participate in an Election Day that saw the largest turnout in state history.

In Prince George’s County, malfunctioning or an insufficient number of voting machines led voters at one polling place to stand in line for up to five hours, and up to four hours at several others, reported the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and an attorney who volunteered to monitor voting activity in the county.

Meanwhile, voters at Takoma Park Middle School waited up to two hours Tuesday morning after an electronic poll book broke down an hour into voting, said an election judge at the Montgomery County precinct. The electronic poll book is the computer system election officials use to confirm a voter’s address and date of birth, and the one that broke down was one of three at the site.

“Clearly, the story of the 2008 election in Maryland was long lines,” said Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland.

“A greater number of machines really should be kept on reserve for places experiencing long lines,” she added. “There must be a way to ensure it’s easy to participate in the franchise and not hard.”

Rockville lawyer Stan Gildenhorn, who was monitoring Montgomery County voting sites for the Democratic Party, said no illegal activity, not even fisticuffs, was reported, despite the hotly contested presidential battle between Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

“The only problems we’ve had [in Montgomery] are mechanical,” said Gildenhorn, who led a team of 26 volunteer lawyers who oversaw voting in Montgomery County on behalf of the Democratic Party. Gildenhorn, a solo practitioner, is counsel to the Montgomery County Democratic Party.

In the longest delay reported in the Washington suburbs, voters at Mount Oak Unitarian Methodist Church in Mitchellville waited up to five hours to vote due to an insufficient number of machines to handle the large crowd, said Curtis, of the ACLU.

As for the machine-generated delays, voters had to wait up to four hours when only two of the six voting machines were in operation at Towers of Westchester Park Building in College Park, reported attorney Charles L. Franklin, who volunteered as the Prince George’s County field manager for Election Protection. Four hours was also the waiting time at the Rollingcrest-Chillum Community Center in Hyattsville, as two machines were not enough to accommodate the massive turn out of seniors in that Prince George’s neighborhood, he added.

Too few machines at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville also contributed to a four-hour wait, said Franklin, an associate at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington.

At Takoma Park Middle School, where the electronic poll book broke down at 8 a.m., the precinct’s chief Democratic election judge Marlon Sellow tried repeatedly to get a replacement from the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

None was available, Sellow said.

“Every 20 minutes I call, politely begging,” Sellow said, adding he was sympathetic to the board’s plight in an election expected to see record turnout in the county, state and nation. “I know they’re swamped.”

To calm the concerns of the voters, whose patience he praised, Sellow said he told them the precinct was not provided enough electronic poll books to accommodate the large turnout. This incomplete truth — after all, the problem was not quantity but quality — helped to maintain the voters’ faith in the system, Sellow said.

“If they know that a machine is down, they may just walk away,” he said.

Voters who spoke after casting their ballots said they did not mind the wait in what they expected to be an especially historic election.

“Not too bad,” John Maynard said of the wait. “I expected it today.”

Maynard added that waiting to cast a vote is the way Election Day should be, with large voter participation.

“You’re almost happy to see long lines,” he said. “You expect it in Takoma Park. It’s such a politically active city.”

Takoma Park City Councilman Terry Seamens, who spent the morning shuttling elderly and disabled voters to the polls in his Dodge Caravan Sport, said his first inkling that something was amiss was when he was ping more people off at the middle school than he was picking up there.

“Nobody was coming out,” he said. “I thought it was a black hole.”

Seamens said he was not surprised that voters were willing to wait so long to vote rather than go home, get to work or run errands.

“It’s not a year to give up,” he said.

Meanwhile, back near the polling booths, Sellow made a vow as he recalled George W. Bush’s defeat of Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, which came down to a single state and a controversial recount hampered by the difficulty of reading ambiguous ballots.

“We’re not going to be Florida,” Sellow said.

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