Election Board Meeting Reveals Work Behind the Scenes

Last night, the City of Rockville Board of Supervisors of Elections held a rare meeting with the candidates and treasurers of the election of November 2009 at City Hall.  About a dozen people attended, including Phyllis Marcuccio, Bridget Newton, Virginia Onley, and briefly, Waleed Ovase (who was also attending a Communications Taskforce meeting).  The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate the last election to determined what worked and what didn’t.  The scope of the Board’s responsibilities is fairly narrow yet extremely important because they fix many of the election rules and establish the standards for campaign finance reporting.  The discussion focused on four items:  polling places, signage, election logistics and information, and campaign finance reporting.  I was only able to attend the first hour, but the discussions I found most interesting were:

1.  As you may remember, election returns weren’t announced until midnight, nearly two hours later than usual.  This was due to delays at the Swim Center polling place, which had a larger than expected turnout and long line of people waiting to vote when the polls closed at 8 pm.  If people are in line when the polls close, they can still vote.  Delays.  Delivering the ballots to the  “counting center” was more difficult than before, not only because of the new location in Gaithersburg, but also it was unclear where to deliver the ballots when they arrived.  More delays.  Because of increased security, it isn’t clear if people can monitor and observe the counting as they did in the previous location.  Secrecy.  Hmm, this is beginning to sound like elections in central America.

2.  There was an interesting discussion about the presence of campaigning at the polling places and whether they made voters uncomfortable or if it was an opportunity to provide information to undecided voters or if it was part of our celebration of democracy.  I personally the find the “gauntlet” silly and useless, so didn’t make a big push for volunteers to do this in my campaign, but look where I ended up.  Roald Shrack used to set up a tent at his polling place, posted people from the neighborhood, welcomed every candidate to display their information,  and thought it was be a great way to make voting a community activity and celebrate involvement.  Should they be moved further away?  Herded together in one place?  Banned?

3.  Campaign signs received fewer complaints than usual even though the restrictions were relaxed from the previous election (formerly signs were limited to 30 days prior to the election, now there’s no limit as long as you are a qualified candidate).  There was an interesting discussion about the use of the City logo on signs and Web sites, and everyone agreed it wasn’t appropriate because it implied official endorsement but there seem to be no restrictions and it’s unclear if the City seal and logo are trademarked.

4.  And how about this–state law requires names be listed in alphabetical order on the ballot.  For those of us with last names that are in the latter half of the alphabet, that really stinks.  There are plenty of studies that show that ballot order makes a difference and those near the top gather more votes than those at the bottom.  Supposedly, Phil Andrews changed his name for his campaign for county council just for this reason.  Randomly listed is the fair approach.  Until then, please call me Max Balgooy.

5.  The official process of informing candidates of their election on election night is unclear.  All candidates had to rely on the announcement on Channel 11, otherwise from friends or supporters who called them with results.  In the meantime, everyone was staring at a screen that just had a scrolling message, “Election results imminent.”  Previously, each candidate would have an observer in the “counting center,” which would distribute the results to everyone at the same time and who would call the candidates.  Now, it seems that no one is allowed in the counting center and that cell phones can’t get reception there.   No one from the City gave the winning candidates a call notifying them they were elected (even unofficially).

It was a very interesting, pleasant, and well run meeting and regret I had to leave for another meeting that same evening.

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4 responses

  1. Max, because you had to leave early, you mised th discussion on the change i filing deadline for the second treasurers report. There was no resolution, but most felt that because the new deadline precludes publishing of the numbers by local newspapers BEFORE the election, it wasn’t a wise decision. Sources of campaign funds was an issue in this past election.

    1. Thanks for the additional info, Joe. I really wanted to stay for the rest of the meeting but was already late for another. I’m glad there was a discussion about the financial report filing deadlines to ensure they could be reported by the local newspaper before the election–I had the same concern.

  2. Max,

    Here are a few thoughts that came to mind as I read through your notes on the meeting.

    As you know, over the past twelve years I have worked on conducting, monitoring, and analyzing the conduct of elections, both in the US and overseas. I also was a member of the election reform task force in Rockville in the 1980’s that resulted in many changes to Rockville’s election laws. Is it true that no-one is allowed in the counting center? If so, I find that concerning and would like to understand why and to what extent. The ability to be present to some extent or another to observe the counting is a fundamental standard of transparency and access accepted worldwide.

    Was an attorney present at the meeting to discuss legal implications of some of the issues? Banning campaigning at the polling place, except for reasonable restrictions related to “time, place and manner” might be challenged as a violation of 1st Amendment rights.

    Notifying candidates of the results would seem to be something that takes place once the results are certified, including after all absentee ballots have been received and are counted. If candidate’s representatives were present at the counting center, and the results of the count posted immediately, they would know the preliminary results.

    I am with Joe on the dates of filing campaign finance reports. We worked hard in the 1980s to make sure that campaign finance reports were filed BEFORE the elections so that the public has an opportunity to know the sources of campaign contributions before they vote. There are differences of opinion on the extent to which campaign contributions should be limited or restricted, but considerable agreement in the US about timely disclosure of campaign contributions.

    The ballot placement issue is and interesting conundrum, and I have heard others raising concerns about it. It is especially concerning in non-partisan races where voters have little to go on other than a name. Have you thought about bringing it up with anyone in the legislative delegation? In some places ballot placement is arrived at by random luck of the draw.

    1. Thanks very much for your thoughts, Sima, especially since you have a different perspective on elections because of your work. No official attorney was present at the meeting, but everyone seemed to be sensitive to issues regarding free speech, especially when it came to politics (evidently Rockville had been challenged over its rules in the last decade). And everyone seemed to be concerned about the changes imposed by the relocation of the Board of Elections office–not only because of the difficulty in finding the place, but in observing the counting and reporting results. All very, very awkward and incredibly, this pothole in our democratic process hasn’t been noticed by the newspapers.

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