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Government & Politics

Of Mice and Men: Primary Day in Baltimore City

So, you say you had a bad day, Bunk? You say the voter registration changes you made at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration never went through, and you had to use a provisional ballot Tuesday? Is that it? Is that what’s bugging you, Bunky?

Well, there’s no doubt that’s a complete mess. But allow me to let you in on a little secret, Bunk: Trying to exercise the franchise could have been a whole lot worse — especially if you were here in the City of Charm.

You could have had to make your way through flea and mouse infestation so bad that your polling place had to be shut down and moved elsewhere.

Baltimore IT Academy, a school in North Baltimore, was kept open as a polling place for an extra hour on primary night. Photo by William F. Zorzi.

Or you could have gone to your assigned polling place only to find that it got moved — and nobody bothered to notify you.

Or you could have gone to your polling place to vote first thing in the morning to discover, well, that no one could find the voting machines. For more than an hour. And then, when the machines and related paraphernalia were finally found — on the second floor — everything was all so securely locked up that no one had a key to get to the equipment. And it was two-and-a-quarter hours before you could think about casting your vote.

On the other hand, if you ask Armstead B.C. Jones, Sr., director of the Baltimore City Board of Elections, he’d tell you it was a good day.

Beginning at the beginning, before the polls opened at 7 a.m., elections officials assigned to the Baltimore IT Academy (School No. 378), once known as Woodbourne Middle School, at 900 Woodbourne Ave., could not find the voting machines that had been delivered there earlier for Election Day use.

Keep in mind, the operation in Northeast Baltimore’s 43rd District is no small enterprise. Nearly 5,000 voters from three Ward 27 precincts — 28, 29 and 35 — are registered to vote there.

For an hour or so, officials could not even find the equipment, but finally, it was located on the second floor, instead of the first — in a locked room. Security is paramount, it’s true. In this case, however, no one had a key to the locked room — and no one knew who had the key.

Eventually, someone was found to let the election workers into the room, and they dragged the equipment to the first floor, where it was supposed to be set up.

All the while, the clock was ticking, and, according to witnesses, voters came and left, came and left, turned away without having a chance to vote. Apparently the polling place was not ready for business until after 9 a.m., more than two hours after the polls were supposed to open, witnesses said.

Later in the day, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge was convinced to order that the polling place remain open for an extra hour — from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. — to compensate for the delay in the morning.

“We consented to do it, to do one hour, because we realized there was an hour or so lost up there,” Jones said.

The votes cast in the 8 p.m.-9 p.m. hour — about a dozen, all told — had to be recorded using the P-word, a provisional ballot, to keep them separate from the regular machine votes, in the event of a court challenge to the extra hour of voting.

Complicated, isn’t it, this election business?

The next little hitch occurred in West Baltimore’s 40th District, at the Friendship Preparatory Academy (School No. 75), the former Calverton Elementary-Middle School, which was closed in January because of heating problems, and the students sent elsewhere.

Voters from two precincts of Ward 16 had voted at the school in the past, but the closure caused election officials to move that polling place to a new location, around the corner a couple of blocks to the James Mosher Elementary School (School No. 144), 2400 Mosher Street. The polling place location change was sent out to voters with their new voting cards, notices were posted on social media and on the election board’s website.

The trouble was, the change-of-location notices only went to the roughly 840 registered voters in Ward 16’s Precinct 10. Somehow, inexplicably, no one in Baltimore’s elections bureaucracy seemed to notice that another 1,500 voters from Ward 16’s Precinct 6 were also registered to vote at the Friendship Preparatory Academy.

Those voters never got the word that they were supposed to vote elsewhere — until they saw signs directing them to James Mosher on Election Day.

In fact, the sample ballots sent out to Precinct 6 voters a few weeks ago, gave the Friendship Preparatory Academy as their polling place. And the polling locations statewide listed on the State Board of Elections website included the academy as well.

The sole reference to any change is on the city Board of Elections webpage listing “2018 Primary Polling Place Changes.” It includes the location change for both Precinct 6 and 10 from the Friendship Academy to James Mosher — but unlike other changes listed, there is no reference to new voters cards being issued or advertisements and notices posted on websites.

Well, explained Jones, “The Friendship Academy had a sign on it, several signs, that said to go to James Mosher Elementary School, and so people were confused, I guess, about that and kept going to the school, and of course, the school is totally closed.”

Right. For months. And the voters weren’t notified ahead of time because …?

“We found out a couple days earlier that there were two polling places listed there, and we ended up, it was too late to send the cards, so that’s why we posted signs, and of course, they only go another half a block or so,” the city elections director said.

So, half the voters were told?

“No, there were two precincts in Friendship. One we moved in time, and they were notified,” Jones said.

Ok. But the other precinct, the one with 1,500 voters?

“The second one, we looked and didn’t, at our last voter integrity meeting, with all of the agencies we deal with, we found out that there was a second precinct in that building,” he said.

“And they could not use Friendship at all, because it was boarded up, so we ended up sending them up to James Mosher and put the signs up that that precinct had been moved,” Jones added.

Well, I guess anyone could lose track of a precinct.

‘We had a good day’

But what about the State Board of Elections website continuing to list the Friendship Academy location?

“That’s what I’m saying to you: We discovered that it had not been moved. So, they could not update their website,” Jones explained.

Uh, I see …

Maybe we should move on now to the mice and fleas.

Anyway, there must have been a whole lot of them at the polling place for Ward 25’s Precinct 9, down in Cherry Hill, where more than 1,100 voters are registered, deep in the 46th District.

Things got so bad by lunch time that the poll workers and judges were ready to walk out if something wasn’t done. At first, Jones considered an exterminator, but then decided just to move the polling place six blocks or so east to Carter G. Woodson Elementary School (School No. 160), where the city election board had placed an early voting center earlier this month.

“We couldn’t leave the folks there; they were threatening to leave, and we need people there to run the precinct and for folk to have a place to go,” Jones explained.

So, “somewhere around 2 o’clock, 2:30,” he said, “we closed it down and moved them over to … Carter G. Woodson.”

The elections officials put a sign on the school, directing voters to the new polling place.

The move, however, was not a small undertaking. It required shutting down the operation, having movers transport all the voting equipment over to the Woodson site and then have the IT techs hook it all back up again — all done under the watchful eye of a Baltimore City election board member.

Lawrence C. Cager Jr., the Democratic vice president of the election board, got the call to oversee the move.

Were the Baltimore City police there, to ensure the security of the votes cast?

“I’m not sure of that,” Jones said.

“Within like 40 minutes they were back up and running,” he said.

Jones referred to the flea- and mouse-ridden poll location as Patapsco Elementary-Middle School (School No. 163), though according to city and state elections documents, the polling place supposedly was changed late last year to the building up the hill behind it, Cherry Hill Elementary-Middle School (School No. 159).

Details. Such are the mysteries of the elections process.

So, were those the worst of the Baltimore’s Election Day problems?

“That’s the Big Three,” Jones said. “We had a good day.”

Wait, that’s a good day?

“Yes, sir — 296 precincts. Yeah, I think it is.”

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Of Mice and Men: Primary Day in Baltimore City