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Why Md. Vote Went Bad: "Earn Extra $$!"

Maryland's primary day election fiasco has been variously blamed on machines that didn't work right, volunteer poll workers who didn't understand how to use those machines, and politicians and state bureaucrats who were too eager to switch to an unproven technology. But here's a new insight into the election day mess: The folks the state used to check on how well the polling machines worked were not computer experts. Heck, they weren't even computer students.

Nope, the people hired to rove around Maryland as "field technicians," troubleshooting and reporting any problems so the vote would go smoothly, were temps hired at bargain rates without the slightest experience with computers of any kind. In fact, they didn't even need a high school diploma--"some high school coursework" was the "education desired."

In the days leading up to the primary, a company called PDS Technical Services put help wanted ads on monster.com seeking "election help" who would be paid a flat rate of $400 for 20 hours of work over three days, including a whopping eight hours of training in "the new state of the art technology." That's a $20 an hour rate--not terrible, of course, but not exactly likely to get you many folks who know how to get sophisticated voting software up and running if it's acting up--even after eight hours of training.

PDS sought people who could meet certain qualifications: "Must be able to follow instructions. Must have excellent communications skills. Must be able to work overtime and flexible hours on Elections Day. Must be available the entire day before the Election - from Poll opening to Poll closing. Must have reliable transportation to travel entire day before and day of election. Must be able to lift up to 35 to 55 lbs."

As long as the governor is seeking answers to this month's debacle at the polls, here are some new questions: Did the state contract with PDS directly? Did county elections boards know who these rovers were and how thin their background was in dealing with the new computerized voting systems? Did county officials know whether any background checks were conducted on these temps?


By Marc Fisher |  September 25, 2006; 7:51 AM ET
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Looks like the days of the country's election process being carried on the backs of the octagenarians running the polls may be over. My parents, both in their 80s, have been poll officials for about a decade, and even though my mom set up her own WebTV, I would hate to think that she's the first line if something goes wrong with the voting machine at the polls. This last election was the first in which they didn't use the punch cards. She claims they never had an issue with the punch cards. They would remind voters to make sure the punch stylus went all the way down to the rubber stopper and to make sure there weren't any little pieces of card hanging off the back (they didn't know they were called chads). And it worked. Maybe we've overengineered the solution.

Posted by: Tim | September 25, 2006 8:56 AM

If this is accurate and local and state officials (whether elected, appointed or career employees) accepted "technical" help based on this ad, everyone responsible (and by responsible I mean had some say in hiring PDS) for the mix ups that happened in this past election needs to be terminated. Where can we get more information about this issue? I have completely lost all faith in the election process in the State of Maryland.

Posted by: MD Voter | September 25, 2006 10:19 AM

One Word....

Conspiracy!

Posted by: Frankey | September 25, 2006 10:54 AM

I was an election judge in Prince Georges County for the primary and I test software for a living. If there had been any advance volume testing of the e-poll tablet software before it was used in production, the problem of crashes and such would have been identified and fixed. The training was inadequate and I attribute that to whoever is in charge of the Board of Elections. There should have been standardized training and we should have been able to test or walk-through the voting procedures. While we did have manuals with good instructions, we needed to be able to assimilate the voting process from check-in to check-out. With more hands on experience for the judges, we wouldn't need a tech at every site.

Posted by: Christine Jackson | September 25, 2006 11:20 AM

To Christine Jackson: "There should have been standardized training and we should have been able to test or walk-through the voting procedures."

That is exactly what us country bumpkins down in St. Mary's County did and we had nothing like the problems in the rest of the state.

Anybody out there want to hire the St. Mary's County election officials to train you guys how to do it right? Or, are you planning to screw up the general election in November so you can blame it on Gov. Ehrlich, President Bush, and the Republican party in general?

To Frankey: See the previous paragraph - there is your conspiracy.

Posted by: St Mary's Got It Right | September 25, 2006 12:38 PM

Now I know why I, a chief election judge, knew far more about the machines, the process, etc. than the "tech" that stopped by my precinct.

Posted by: Election judge | September 25, 2006 2:03 PM

To Christine Jackson:
have you ever seen a bug-free software? i didn't think so. tech-support is needed for a reason.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 25, 2006 4:16 PM

I think the issue is not "bug-free software" but the fact that the State of Maryland would contract with a company (directly or through a third party) for technical support that required on experience at all in dealing with computer software or troubleshooting "technical" issues. If the technician doesn't know more about the software than the election judge, there is a problem. Why don't more people see the bigger issue here?

Posted by: MD Voter | September 25, 2006 4:32 PM

To St. Mary's Got it Right:

We're very happy to keep you bumpkins in Maryland, especially when we want to come down for a bushel of crabs, but let's be real - you have 30 voting precincts. Montgomery has 240 and PG has 206. Getting it right is a little bit easier when all the voters in the county are related to each other.

And as far as trying to blame someone, Governor Ehrlich called for the resignation of the Chair of the State Election Commission, a Democrat. So it seems your Republican Party is also not unhappy to place the blame on the other side.

The 3-member Board of Public Works approves all state contracts, including PDS Technical Services. One-third of the BPW was already voted out (Schaeffer). We'll have our chance on another third in November (Ehrlich). One Democrat, one Republican. That seems fair.

Posted by: Try and Try Again | September 26, 2006 6:51 AM

Charles County got it right, too. The problem in Montco wasn't technical as much as human--someone forgot to pack the Voter Access Cards. If they had, much of this over-scrutiny of other matters would have gone away. We talked to our poll workers during and after election day--they overwhelmingly support the use of the poll books. In Charles, we used county IT employees. Surely Montco could employ a similar solution.

Posted by: election official | September 26, 2006 7:52 AM

If a new election technology genuinely requires PhD experts to maintain it, then it's a damn poor technology!

In fact, for a sensitive subject such as an election, too much knowledge of computers (even just played-with-them-all-through-junior-high) will give the techs the ability to hack the innards and rig the vote.

In the perfect world, the election judges along with county employees ought to be able to run everything. Contractors on election day equals trouble!

Posted by: Tim in Bethesda | September 26, 2006 8:09 AM

To Try and Try Again

A little more info that you may not be aware of: St. Mary's County is headquarters for NAVAIR - the aviation third of the U.S. Navy. One thing we seem more capable of than Montgomery County is Logistics - that is called "planning" for you folks that don't understand big words. Placing the Voter Access Cards with the rest of the equipment was a no-brainer (something you are obviously extremely qualified to do) because we used a simple piece of paper called a "checklist". Everything required at the polls was on a checklist and everything was distributed on schedule. Training the election personnel was accomplished prior to the primary - not "on-the-job" like Montgomery County. With a little planning and training the primary went smoothly.

Instead of campaigning to get your candidate elected for governor maybe the election folks should do their job - or be fired, as the Governor has suggested. What a concept for you uppity folks upstate - do your job or get fired.

As far as your comment that everybody down here is related to each other - that just shows your ignorance. Do us a favor and stay up there. We don't need people like you in our gene pool.

Posted by: St Mary's Got It Right | September 26, 2006 10:10 AM

It seems to be another case proving that "contracting out" or "privatizing" a government function doesn't work. What county clerk, who depends on good will for re-election, would have hired such klutzs for such important work. Lets stop privatizing government work NOW!

That being said, the touch screen and similar types of voting machines, because of their complexity and hackability, should be ruled out. There is a simple system, the marked ballot that is computer read, leaves a recountable paper trail, that should be used. Fully electronic, even the ones that print a paper trail, just can't be trusted.

And anyone that says fully electronic voting is reliable is a fool, a liar, naive, or whatever.

Posted by: Gerald G Maloney | September 26, 2006 12:13 PM

Our tech support person locked herself out of her car.

Posted by: another monky county election judge | September 26, 2006 1:41 PM

To St. Mary's Got it Right, or should I call you Top Gun:

Maybe what we needed in Montgomery was a different branch of the service running the election. The guy responsible for leaving out the voter access cards was a retired Pentagon colonel. In fact, I have a lot of respect for him, going in front of the press and saying, "I screwed it up, nobody else."

But I don't quite understand your position on blame. First it was "are you planning to screw up the general election in November so you can blame it on Gov. Ehrlich, President Bush, and the Republican party in general?" Then it's "election folks should do their job - or be fired." So when Montgomery County Executive Duncan called on the Governor to fire the state appointees assigned to run the election in Montgomery, and Ehrlich refused, you're supporting Duncan on that one, right?

And enjoy your next election training meeting. I'm sure everyone from all 30 precincts can get together in the reading room of the St. Mary's City Library.

Posted by: Try and Try Again | September 26, 2006 11:41 PM

Marc,

How much do you think they should have paid? $40 an hour? $60? And how much training should they have gotten? 16 hours? Two weeks?

Posted by: KK | September 27, 2006 7:12 AM

This problem of companies being awarded contracts for which they have inadequate resources and no expertise is endemic throughout the business world.

The Federal government awards contracts to companies (who say they have the expertise) only to have the company go out and hire any warm body they can find. (Haliburton, anyone?) The companies provide quickie training to their new hires, and think they have done their part. Then when the **it hits the fan, everybody is just shocked, shocked, I tell you, that the process wasn't successful.

Posted by: DcNative | September 27, 2006 12:01 PM

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