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Party Tags on Absentee Ballots Worry Election Watchdogs

By Joseph Bacchus
Capital News Service
Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2004

ANNAPOLIS - Robert Lanza thought voters' ballots were supposed to be secret, which is why he was surprised to see a little "G" next to his name on his absentee ballot return address -- for Green Party.

"Anybody handling my absentee ballot can look at my envelope and tell what my political affiliation is," Lanza said.

Lanza and other election watchers say the party tags invite fraud because a ballot handler who disagrees with a voter's party choice could simply throw out his or her ballot. Maryland State Board of Elections officials maintain there is no cause for concern. However, they have also said they might discontinue the practice in future elections.

Lanza, of Takoma Park, is a volunteer for TrueVoteMD, a nonpartisan group opposing the Diebold touch-screen voting machines to be used statewide in next week's election. He said he requested an absentee ballot because he would not be in the county on Election Day, not because he did not trust the voting machines.

Maryland switched to electronic voting systems after the 2000 election debacle in Florida, when problems with paper ballots and lever machines led to a contested victory margin of only 537 votes. However, the Diebold machines have also been criticized as too easy to tamper with, and TrueVoteMD has fought for paper records for the electronic ballots.

Maryland elections' chief Linda Lamone said Lanza's concerns with the party tags are unfounded. She said she trusts state workers, and does not believe that anyone would try to affect the election by illegally discarding ballots.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, does not share her confidence. He said this was the first he had heard of the party affiliation tags, but agreed with Lanza that the tags invite fraud, and could be used for "partisan political purposes."

"That's a serious violation of voter privacy and confidentiality on the ballot," Browning said. "State election material should be nonpartisan and should protect the voter from having their party preferences known."

Donna Duncan, the election board's director of the election management division, insists there is nothing insidious about the party tags. She said they are simply an "administrative issue."

Maryland uses the same absentee envelope format in the general election as it does in the primary election, Duncan said, and officials responsible for stuffing ballot envelopes use a printed sheet of labels that includes each voter's party affiliation.

"In the primary election you need to know from the sheet of labels if (the voter needs) a Democratic ballot, a Republican ballot, a nonpartisan ballot and basically what ballot style they need," she said. "The label is merely an indicator to the folks that are possibly stuffing the envelopes with the ballots as to what ballot to put in the envelope."

Duncan conceded that there were concerns over whether the process left the Maryland voting system open to tampering.

"We have heard a handful of complaints about the party being on the outside of the envelopes," Duncan said. "We will probably look at a number system versus the actual abbreviation (in future elections)."

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism


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