REFORM IS NEEDED:

Vote Early and Often
The way Maryland’s electoral system is set up, voting twice is easy—and hard to detect. Think about that the next time an election’s very close.
by Rob Ford
“I Made a Boo-Boo”
Bradenton, FL (March 16)—Chris Carman voted for George W. Bush twice. Carman, brother of a Bradenton city councilman and a former county Republican party official, may face felony charges for voter fraud.
     “I made a boo-boo,” Carman said.
     Carman cast an absentee ballot mailed to his roommate, a registered Democrat, forging his roommate’s name.
     Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat called the sheriff’s office for a criminal investigation. “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my 16 years in office,” Sweat said.
     “You can’t do something like that. Voting is not a joke. You get one vote and that’s it.”
     Source: Associated Press
       On May 11, USA Today satisfied our inquisitive desire to find the answer to that burning question: Did George W. Bush really win the 2000 presidential election?

       The newspaper did an extensive study, and concluded that he did not. The results of USA Today’s study, however, have not inspired local, state and federal lawmakers to call urgently for electoral reform. What will Maryland lawmakers do, for example, to prevent the possibility of a voting fiasco here like the one in Florida?

       The USA Today study confirmed that if ballots cast in favor of Al Gore had not been thrown out in higher proportions than ballots cast in favor of Bush, Gore would be President today. According to the study, ballots with Democratic votes in Florida were two-thirds more likely than ballots with Republican votes to be disqualified because they were deemed to be incorrect, invalid or erroneously completed.

       Although the study provides empirical evidence in favor of the argument made by Gore and electoral reform activists that every vote should have been counted, the electoral reform movement that came into being with the November elections appears to have been pushed to the back burner by lawmakers.

       Partisan politics and incongruity among local, state and federal institutions appear to have stunted any hope for reform in the near future. The federal government is reluctant to interfere with state jurisdiction over electoral systems, so reforms will have to take place at the state and local level, all across the U.S.

       Disproportionate discarding of ballots is only one potential problem the nation’s subdivisions have to face in assuring a free and fair election.

       As Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway pointed out in the Dec. 20-26, 2000 issue, “There are more people registered to vote in Alaska than there are people of voting age. [And] in supposedly advanced Oregon, more than 36,000 voters sent in ballots signed by someone else.”

       In this state, the Election Code portion of the Maryland Annotated Code currently does not provide for an efficient cross-referencing system of voter registries by County Boards of Elections and the State Board of Elections in order to guard against duplicate registration and voting.

       Section 24-2 of the Election Code does stipulate that a person found guilty of voting more than once for the same candidate can be fined $2,500 or imprisoned for up to five years. The same punishment is applicable for a person who registers to vote in multiple precincts or counties.

       However, it is unclear how counties and the state could even detect these unlawful acts. The lack of a cross-referencing system among the state’s counties to allow for verification of residency and detection of multiple voters is a loophole that could be disastrous in upcoming elections.

       According to the Baltimore City, Charles County and Wicomico County Boards of Elections, the Maryland State Government Board of Elections in Annapolis requires periodically that each jurisdiction send a copy of its voter registry to it, to be uploaded and interfaced in a statewide database.

       The state conducts searches through this database to detect duplicate registrations—checking, for example, for registrations with the same first name and birth date in different counties. Based on its findings, the state compiles and sends a “duplication list” to the 24 jurisdictions in Maryland. It is then the responsibility of the local jurisdictions to contact the duplicate registrants and discern whether their names should be deleted from the registry.

       Joanne Barthman of the Wicomico County Board of Elections says that the most common instance of duplicate registrations in Wicomico County is women who change their name because of marriage or divorce and never notify the Board of Elections.

       “There are some women who have been registered under as many as three or four different names at the same time,” she said.

       Barthman does not think that multiple voting or registration is a widespread problem. She indicated that most of the people who are registered more than once do not actually vote more than once. She did acknowledge, however, that an educator in Wicomico County was recently caught voting in two counties. It was not the detection system that caught him, however. The educator unknowingly bragged to a Wicomico County election official.

       An inherent problem with the system is that it allows people to register to vote before their registrations can be properly cross-referenced with other jurisdictions. When a voter registration application is received by the Baltimore City Board of Elections, for example, it is entered in the database and added to the city’s voter registry. Baltimore City cannot check with other counties to see if the applicant is registered or has applied in other counties before they add the name to the list. It is not until all of the registries are uploaded at the state level, which only occurs periodically through the year, that cross-referencing county and state records can occur. By then, the applicant has already received a voter registration card and possibly voted.

       The same problem occurs between states.

       Take the case of James Varner, a 23-year-old resident of Charles Village who moved to this city from South Carolina 11 months ago. Mr. Varner applied for a voter registration card through the mail in Baltimore City. Two weeks before the November election he received his voter registration card in the mail. He never provided any verification of his residence to the Baltimore City Board of Elections. When he went to vote in his designated precinct, he was never asked to show any verification of his residency, or even to show identification to prove that he was in fact the person he was claiming to be.

       “I could not believe it,” Mr. Varner says. “I never registered to vote in South Carolina, but I’m sure that, if I had, I could have voted in both Maryland and South Carolina [through an absentee ballot]. If I had known how little [the Board of Elections] watched the voters in Maryland, I could have registered to vote in different counties and precincts throughout Maryland.”

       In a close election like the presidential contest in 2000, such laxity could have a detrimental effect on the fairness, legitimacy and stability of the Maryland’s voting results.

       Multiply the effort needed in Maryland 50 times over, and the scope of the problem becomes clear. Each state is undertaking its own reforms, so the outcomes will not be consistent. Some states have more money to spend on this problem than others; some states are more motivated to improve procedures than others.

       The rest of the world is watching, however, hoping the weak points found in the 2000 presidential election will be corrected, so that the integrity of the U.S. electoral process will not be suspect.

       In a May 24 story in The Daily Mail & Guardian, a British newspaper, columnist John Matshikiza wrote, “Vote rigging, dead people voting as if they were live people, and live people voting twice or thrice—the macabre rituals previously thought to be exclusive to places like Haiti, Colombia, KwaZulu-Natal and the Philippines have all been skillfully integrated into the expensive ballyhoo of the American presidential race....

       “In the long run, the ultimate winner might well be the American electoral system itself. The farce of this narrow [Bush-Gore] margin has made the people fed up and wanting change.”


Rob Ford, an honors graduate of the University of Maryland College Park, lives in Charles Village and works in a Washington law firm.

 


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This story was published on May 30, 2001.