By: Mengxin Cui
Baltimore has a long history of election administration problems. According to media reports, election workers often lack knowledge of procedure, polling places sometimes fail to open on time, equipment shuts down, election judges fail to show up, and so on. Commenting on these problems, Roger E. Hartley, Dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore observed that, “[i]f we’re experiencing problems over and over again, not anticipating them in advance, that has a major impact on the credibility of the system.” Baltimore’s history shows us that even when problems occur, courts rarely order new elections. Some legal and political experts explain that an election “do-over” is an extremely expensive decision, and may bring about a host of new problems. For this reason, courts and election administrators almost never order election do-overs.
In 2016, it is not surprising that election administration problems persisted. Many voters and politicians filed complaints. For example, in May 2016, state review found that about 1,650 ballots in Baltimore’s primary election were handled improperly. The State Board of Elections further concluded that 1,188 provisional ballots were inappropriately scanned into the vote tally on Election Day, without judges verifying that the voters were eligible. Another 465 provisional ballots in that election were not considered. “It is what it is,” said the city’s election director, Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., “[i]t shouldn’t have happened, but Baltimore City is not the only place where it happened.” Will this comment be helpful to appease a frustrated public? Unlikely so.
In June 2016, activists with Voters Organized for the Integrity of City Elections (VOICE) and others asked a federal judge to order a new primary election in Baltimore, alleging that a series of irregularities and a “vote-buying scheme” are insults to the fairness and integrity of elections. In addition, the filing also alleges that the administration of the election disenfranchised African-Americans, who make up the majority of Baltimore’s population. “We want some assurances that will restore public confidence in the election, and so far, everyone is sorry, but nobody wants to do anything about it . . . .” said the VOICE coalition’s lead attorney in a Baltimore Sun video. “The citizens of this city deserve better. They deserve a new election,” said disgruntled voter Cortly D. Witherspoon, a reverend and social justice activist in Baltimore.
However, courts are reluctant to order new elections absent clear evidence. “The plaintiff must prove that the number of votes in question is greater than the margin of victory in the various contests . . . . The lawsuit characterizes the April election as an ‘absolute disaster,’” wrote The Baltimore Sun.
To void or not to void, this is the question.
To me, it is a regrettable situation that the court is confronting: how to maintain the public’s confidence in the election while avoiding the cost (and risk) of a do-over. When is a state’s review convincing and clear enough to secure the court’s do-over order? Based on previous experience, courts likely will continue to demand more evidence before having the courage to disrupt an election’s result. Without more evidence, suits such as this one will likely fall to precedent—in which everyone is very sorry, but no action is taken.
Unfortunately, a judge dismissed the lawsuit that asked for the Baltimore primary election do-over, concluding in part that the plaintiffs waited too long to file the case. In spite of the failure in litigation, a flurry of civic groups have recruited citizen poll-watchers, hoping such bugbears will never happen in the future.