Monday, May 23, 2016

What Baltimore's voting debacle tells us

So there we have a primary election with a record turnout, we have a system that has a paper trail and we employ scanners that supposedly spit out the vote count as soon as the last ballot has been scanned. 

But it all fails if the election "judges" don't show (reportedly a third of the designated judges chose the no show "option"). 

If voting records that get established when a volunteer checks the person walking in against the records of registered voters available do not match up with the recorded ballot count, there is a problem. One reason for that could be that provisional ballots of people not found in the records were scanned anyway. Another way to get a discrepancy is that one person received more than one ballot and somehow was able to scan more than one. More likely judges somehow lost recorded voters by misplacing the slip they had to sign or people received ballots without having been properly recorded. 

Pratt Library polling place (Photo: WP)

All those things can happen in some kind of stress condition, humans make mistakes and as everybody stresses, there is no "perfect" election anywhere. 

The problem is that these mistakes were apparently made hundreds of times. Unfortunately one can only draw two conclusions from this.  One is that Baltimore has extraordinary numbers of very incompetent election judges or that a large number of them didn't follow protocol on purpose. Neither case is encouraging. In fact, the sheer reality of the State decertifying the election results and dozens of volunteers from Harford County and other surrounding jurisdictions descending on Baltimore to reconcile the results precinct by precinct,  because our residents can't count right, is very disturbing and insulting. Yes, it should not have been necessary to get a court injunction to open the doors to see the corrective procedure taking place. But the suspicion that these suburbanites, who most likely know very little about Baltimore's politics, would work any shenanigans behind closed doors seems silly. Even though Hogan has  shown his disdain for the biggest city in his state before, and his interest may be to show that we are, indeed, incompetent,  that doesn't mean he would instruct his helpers to cheat. 

Counting for certification (WBAL)

If no problems would have been found beyond the 800 provisional ballots that had been found by the City election board themself, all would be "fine", even though the precincts opening late, the voters falsely being told they were in the wrong precinct, and the letters going to released felons falsely stating they couldn't vote would still give cause for concern. 

But now it is a week later and we still have no certified result because the discrepancies that have been found are of an inexcusable magnitude. 

Recounting for recertification

It is unlikely that any of this will revert who was elected and who was runner up, but the miscounted number of votes is large enough to allow speculations and theories to go wild, while stopping any focus on what should happen under a new mayor and a vastly renewed council. 

In a few months all this will likely be forgotten and the city's attention will shift from elections to actual governance.  But the problem remains that the election debacle is merely a symptom of widespread incompetence that is manifest in many places, from abusive housing maintenance workers, corrupt prison guards, police that routinely don't  follow rules, to the more benign case of the city's inability of running a red light/speed control camera system that doesn't cite parked cars for violating the speed limit. 

These conditions are not only embarrassing, they waste scarce resources, add to injustices, contribute to  the fact that even good and successful programs never add up to the convincing progress that many other cities with less incompetence demonstrate to us a a real possibility. With CitiStat Baltimore had once innovated a tool that helped to raise expectations and performance by holding  all agencies to measurable metrics of accountability. The system was instilling fear in those who had to report. Instead, it should enable everybody to get motivated towards the joint task of real progress. 

Our sister city of Washington DC was long the laughingstock  of the nation because it couldn't get basic things like snow plowing done and the mayor got busted for cocain use. ("She set me up that bitch"). The District eventually got its act together and has become a leader in renewal, sustainability, progressive transportation solutions and population growth. 

It didn't take perfection to get there, just enough leadership and qualified department heads that the honest toil of the thousands of city employees started to add up to something good, when before it seemed like that the left hand didn't know what the right one did and any type of synergy appeared illusive. 

Once enough basic things work as intended (schools, trash, public housing, water meters, transportation) the positive effects will grow exponentially and the same amount of effort will yield actual sustainable progress. 

We can only hope that these botched vote counts won't stand in the way of getting to that better place that should be well within our reach. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

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