Montgomery County’s ballots put some candidates at a disadvantage, groups say

Several Maryland organizations alleged that Montgomery County’s touchscreen ballots discriminate against candidates in certain primary elections, in a letter sent Monday to county and state election boards.

The full list of candidates running in specific races in the county primary will be displayed on multiple digital pages, the letter said, with insufficient notice that voters must press a small button labeled “More” to show additional candidates on the next page.

The letter highlighted Montgomery County Council’s overall race in the Democratic primary, with seven of the eight candidates running for office appearing on the first page and only one, Laurie-Anne Sayles, appearing on the second page . (State law requires candidates to be listed alphabetically by last name on ballots.)

Early voting began on Thursday.

“Even a small number of voters confused by the ballot construction could affect the outcome of the election, to the specific detriment of the candidate, who stands alone on the second screen of the At-Large Council list,” the letter said signed by groups including the Montgomery County Education Association, Progressive Maryland and Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund, which supported Sayles.

Jeffrey Groce, Sayles’ campaign manager, criticized the county and state election authorities for a lack of communication on the issue. “They did not inform the candidates that the electronic ballots would look like this,” he said. “We heard that people who voted for Laurie-Anne Sayles said, ‘We had trouble finding the candidate’s name.'”

Sayles and members of the organizations testified on the matter Monday afternoon before the Montgomery County Board of Elections. According to Bruce Turnbull, a board member of Jews United for Justice, the electoral commission promised to inform voters about the problem in signage when voters decide whether to vote by ballot or digitally.

Alysoun McLaughlin, acting director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said she is working with an attorney and the state elections board to formulate additional signage at voting centers to educate voters about the issue. “This will be the third sign pointing to the ‘More’ button in the polling station,” she said.

Groce and McLaughlin said the state election commission was aware of the issue as early as 2015, but no action was taken. Officials raised similar complaints about the Maryland touchscreen machines in 2016.

Nikki Charlson, Maryland’s Deputy Elections Secretary, said the touchscreen machines are “set up to require a voter to view each screen in a contest” and would warn voters if they walk away from a contest without having viewed all of those listed candidates. Charlson said the state has committed to using the machines until the 2024 election, but could consider software upgrades that would change the way candidates are displayed.

The Maryland County electoral authorities have filed various complaints in the run-up to a primary election, which has been followed by lawsuits over redistribution of the electoral districts that pushed the election date back to July 19 and errors in the distribution of sample and mail-in ballots.

In Montgomery County in June, the state ballot vendor mistakenly mailed second absentee ballots to more than 790 voters, prompting the state election committee to issue a clarification that voters should vote with one and destroy the other. Montgomery County’s ballots put some candidates at a disadvantage, groups say

Dustin Huang

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