Voter Excitement Tempered by Concerns of Fairness at Polls

With record turnout expected, some black voters fear their ballot may not count.

Sept. 23, 2008— -- Faidley's Seafood in Baltimore has served up crab cakes for more than a century; these days the talk at lunchtime is all about the election.

"I think you will get more voters going to the polls in this election than any other election," said Lou Flemming, a frequent customer at Faidley's.

The election excitement is higher in Maryland than in other years because of the historic nature of Barack Obama's candidacy.

"You got history," Flemming said. "You've never had an African-American run for president in this country."

"I'm already registered," one diner said. "Hopefully, I'll be the first one there."

Maryland is a Democratic stronghold; Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry won in Maryland by greater margins than in all but three states.

One reason for the Democrats' strength here stems from the state's demographics: Nearly 30 percent of the population is black. And with Obama on the ticket, the African-American community is expected to turn out in record numbers to vote.

While voter apathy won't be a problem, their excitement is tempered by serious doubts about fairness at the polls.

"You ask yourself the question: Will white America let a black man run this country?" Baltimore resident Raymond Hall said. "For me, my opinion, the answer is no. So I really don't think it's going to be fair."

Maryland has had problems in the past. In 2006, predominantly black precincts in Prince George's County did not have enough poll workers or voting machines.

"The lines were so long in the middle of the day that a lot of people just had to give up and couldn't vote," said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. "I'm concerned that that could happen again in 2008."

In 2006, there were also efforts to manipulate black voters. Leaflets were distributed throughout predominately minority neighborhoods, warning voters to stay away from the polls if they hadn't paid their parking tickets or child support. Or claiming, falsely, that black leaders had endorsed Republicans.

"The colors of the material were in red, black and green, all designed to encourage African-American voters to think that their African-American representatives were supporting Republican candidates for the Senate seat and the governor's seat," said Sherrilyn Iffil, professor at the University of Maryland Law School and co-chair of the Maryland Attorney General's task force on voter irregularities.

Maryland is doing its best to make sure there are enough properly trained "election judges," better known outside Maryland as poll workers, to handle the crowds.

Voters will cast their ballots electronically on high-tech terminals. But the state legislature doesn't trust the new state-of-the-art electronic system, because it realizes there's no piece of paper to double check. After November, Maryland officials plan to return to paper ballots.

Unsure about the fate of their expensive machines, officials said they would likely be sold to another state. The previous voting machines ended up in California's Los Angeles County.

Since voting laws are determined state by state and applied county by county, there's no consistent national standard for voting procedures, even in a presidential campaign.

"Clearly the management of the election itself is going to be at the local level," Cardin said. "But I do think these are national issues. And we do have a responsibility to make sure that everyone can cast their vote and their vote will be counted."

But Maryland's problems are by no means unusual. The watchdog group Common Cause looked at 10 battleground states and found voting irregularities of one sort or another in each of them.

With millions of new voters expected to flock to the polls this year, worry lingers whether the vote will be both fair and secure.