This story was updated at noon July 12 to reflect that the electronic ballot design issue also affects the County Council District 5 race.
Community members called on the Montgomery County Board of Elections on Monday to fix a design issue that splits lists of candidates into multiple pages on the touch-screen voting system for the July 19 primary.
During the board’s regularly scheduled meeting, callers who have voted early noted that in races with eight or more candidates — such as the Democratic gubernatorial race — names are split alphabetically onto multiple pages of the electronic ballot with up to seven candidates appearing on each page. Subsequent pages do not have headers identifying the race.
That design may impact the outcome in at least two County Council races on the ballot.
The County Council at-large race includes eight Democratic candidates, and the names of seven appear on the first page of the ballot and only the name of candidate Laurie-Anne Sayles is on the second page. Those who want to vote for her who have already selected four candidates before seeing her name must then go one page back, de-select a candidate and then toggle one page forward to select Sayles’ name.
Sayles told the board that while candidates were allowed to approve how their names appeared on the paper version of the ballot that voters could choose, they did not see how the electronic ballot would look beforehand. She was not aware of the issue until she spoke with a voter who had trouble finding her name during early voting, which ends Thursday.
“It’s a huge disadvantage, not just being at the bottom of the ballot, but being on a separate page with no indication of what office I’m running for,” Sayles told the board.
Also, the same issue occurs with candidates for the council’s District 5 race, with seven candidates appearing on the first page and Jeremiah Pope alone on the second.
Pope found out about the issue after some of his supporters notified him, he said Tuesday during a phone call.
“I wish the state and the county board of elections would at least let us know early on in the election cycle,” he said. “I’m disappointed because they didn’t notify my campaign.”
Several local unions and advocacy organizations also sent a letter Monday to the local and state elections boards urging officials to take steps to correct the design problem.
“In a county where the 2018 Democratic primary election saw the County Executive candidate selected by a margin of 77 votes and one of the state delegates selected by a margin of only 12 votes, even a small number of voters becoming confused by the ballot construction could affect the outcome of the election, to the specific detriment of the candidate who is by herself on the second screen of the At-Large Council listing,” said the letter signed by 12 unions and organizations.
Peter Witzler, a member of the nonprofit advocacy group Progressive Maryland, called the issue a “big problem” and a “disadvantage” for Sayles.
He suggested that election judges at the county’s polling places be instructed to inform voters that some candidates’ names are listed on a second page.
“This is a really unfair situation that has happened to this particular candidate,” he said. “The voters see every other candidate besides Laurie-Anne Sayles on the first page, and unless they’re told specifically that they need to click to the next page to see all the candidates, they will not see her name.”
Bethesda resident Susie Turnbull, a longtime Democratic activist who ran for lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous in 2018, told the board she’s never been more disappointed in the voting process than by what she experienced when she voted last week, receiving very little instruction from election officials at her voting center.
“No voter should ever be confused when voting,” Turnbull said.
Turnbull stressed the urgency of finding a solution for the problem, with early voting ending Thursday and Primary Election Day just eight days away.
Those speaking asked for all candidates to be placed on the same page or for the board to ask election officials to inform voters of the situation.
The letter from the unions and organizations suggested that elections officials instruct the software provider to modify the presentation of candidates by listing them all on one page if possible. If not, three could be listed on the first page and five on the second so that voters don’t make their four selections without being aware of the options on the second page, the letter said.
Failing that option, election officials must instruct poll workers to inform voters that candidates will appear on multiple screens, the letter said.
Kevin Karpinski, an attorney who represents the county elections board, told the board he was informed of the issue on the first day of early voting.
When he reached out to the State Board of Elections, he said he was told it was too late to change the configuration of names on the ballot and to add a header to the second page.
“We have people who reached out to each early voting site to speak to the center managers and explain we want these instructions to be given and an emphasis provided that there is a second page,” Karpinski said.
Board member Amie Hoeber suggested placing a sign at voting centers to inform voters of the second candidate page.
The board voted to send a letter to the state board requesting that all candidates be given the opportunity to review electronic ballots as well as paper ballots for the November general election and future elections.
For now, signs will be posted at polling places and daily reminders provided to election judges about the instructions they need to give to voters, the board said. The board will share the issue on social media so that voters are informed.
Board Secretary David Naimon, who proposed sending the letter to the state board, said he wished the board could change the software for the electronic ballots, but he knew the board could not solve the problem.
“Those are good measures,” Naimon said. “I think that’s about as much as our local board can do.”
Christine Zhu of Gaithersburg, a rising junior at the University of Maryland who is studying journalism and Spanish, is the Bethesda Beat summer intern.