Why thousands of Montco absentee ballots went uncounted by election deadline

Montgomery County struggled to process absentee ballots  — and left thousands of voters wondering whether their votes would be counted in the November election — because of staffing shortages in the Voter Services department, a loss of key personnel, and increased workload, according to a report released Thursday.

Complaints poured in as voters had not received their absentee ballots within days of the Nov. 8 election, prompting the county to seek an extension of the deadline to return ballots. In December, the county's Election Board asked for an independent review by public safety employees.

That report, presented to the Election Board on Thursday, and based on surveys and discussions with Voter Services employees, did not pinpoint one cause for the problems.

Instead, it offered suggestions and critiques, such as not bringing in enough temporary workers sufficiently early and not having enough computer consoles available.

"As Voter Services looked back at their process, they found that no one task or procedure caused their system to fail," the report said. "Voter Services became overwhelmed with the tasks being asked of them."

In a presentation to the three-member Election Board, those who conducted the review outlined issues, including the departure of three high-ranking employees last summer and an 18 percent increase in absentee ballots to process compared with the 2012 presidential election. 

"It is unknown through the data how the department vacancies impacted the process," the report said. "However, it was mentioned that those individuals in the positions before their vacancy knew how to do things that others in the office did not."

When a Montgomery County judge granted an extension of the deadline to return the ballots just four days before Election Day, only half the 29,541 ballots had been returned to Voter Services. More than 2,000 ballots were returned after the deadline was extended, and 22,297 absentee ballots were counted for the election. Several hundred returned after the extended deadline were not counted.

"It is my hope that we never see this again," Judge Cheryl. L. Austin, a member of the Election Board, said.

The county delayed printing and sending out absentee ballots until Oct. 11 — later than most other counties — due to a dispute over wording of a ballot question, but the review did not find that to be a major factor in delays.

Heather Morgan, a training and exercise coordinator with the Department of Public Safety, told the Election Board that the department could benefit from "a more standard and structured approach" to its work, including tracking calls from voters and absentee ballots as they are mailed and returned.

The public safety team recommended that the county coordinate "at a higher level" with the U.S. Postal Service, cited by the county employees as part of the problem. The report suggested working more closely with the Postal Service and developing a better system to track incoming mail. Other recommendations included making fact sheets to define jobs, bringing in more temporary workers for presidential elections, and implementing training plans for employees.

Commissioner Valerie Arkoosh, who is chairwoman of the Election Board, said she had not seen the report before Thursday's meeting but was open to following the recommendations.

"I believe in ongoing performance review and improvement," she said. "We can always do better."

Commissioner Joseph Gale, a Republican, voiced concern that the vacant positions had been filled before the election with employees who had previously held partisan jobs for Democratic candidates. 

"This is exactly the type of behavior that causes the public to lose faith in the electoral system," he said.

The public safety employees who delivered the report said they had focused on policies and procedures. Arkoosh said there was no evidence of inappropriate behavior.

"You are making completely, completely unjustified accusations about a person’s job performance," she told Gale. "And I think it is just unconscionable to do that."