When Kirsten Johnson went to vote on East Cold Spring Lane on Friday during Maryland’s seven-day early voting period, things didn’t go as she had planned.
A Roland Park resident since 2007, Johnson had received mailings from the Baltimore City Board of Elections informing her she lived in Maryland’s 41st legislative district, but a poll worker handed her a ballot for District 40.
“I said, ‘Excuse me, there’s been a mistake,’” she recalled.
The volunteer directed her back to the check-in table, where she showed more election volunteers her voter ID card and sample ballot, mailed to her by election officials, that all put her in District 41. But the workers verified their computer system listed her address in District 40.
”All of the people at the polling place were extremely nice, but obviously, they didn’t know what was happening,” Johnson said.
Johnson is one of thousands of Maryland voters who experienced errors with sample ballots, mail ballots, and now ballots they were given at in-person early voting centers following a turbulent redistricting process and legal challenges that delayed the July 19 primary election by three weeks. State officials acknowledged that Johnson and hundreds of her neighbors were incorrectly assigned on voter rolls. As many as 15,000 Maryland residents may have been incorrectly assigned, The Baltimore Brew reported, while The Washington Post reported that some voters received two ballots.
State and local election officials have worked to quickly correct the errors, but Johnson left the polling place without voting and drove to the Baltimore City Board of Elections office to see if she could get some answers.
A staffer named Wendy Paige and another woman tried to help.
“They acknowledged that there was a problem,” said Johnson. “I mean, you could see they were sort of confused.”
Johnson showed them a printout from an online legislative map that plotted her address in District 41. The staffers printed out her voter profile and found another conflict — her polling place showed as Hampden Elementary School in District 40.
”I kind of settled in there; they had chairs,” she said. ”I think they understood that I was not going to leave until I got a little more information.”
But after two hours — and still connected to two districts — she had no choice.
Neighbor listed in three legislative districts
Once Johnson got home, she compared notes with nearby neighbors. All three, including one who received her mail-in ballot, said they were in District 41, too.
Johnson’s next door neighbor, Kathleen Lasker, said she made a plan to vote on Monday — leaving her plenty of time to troubleshoot problems before primary day. But she wasn’t expecting the additional plot twist she got at the poll.
Poll workers told her, that like Johnson, she should vote in District 40. Lasker pushed back and asked them to check again. They looked her up this time on a paper list and found she should vote in District 46.
District 46 blankets Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and shares no borders with District 41 — and made even less sense to Lasker, who had now been told to vote in three different districts.
“So where the heck am I?” she asked herself.
Lasker went home without voting and consulted with Johnson.
A chief election judge working Monday morning confirmed Lasker and Johnson were not the only ones who ran into a snag. Around 10:30 a.m., an unknown staffer from the city board of elections had delivered “a new list,” Hideo Williams said. This was about an hour before Lasker had attempted to vote.
The woman who made the delivery also told the room of volunteers the list would iron out any district-related confusion.
“She just basically said that there was a redistricting issue. And voters weren’t informed about it,” Williams said.
But that list placed Lasker in District 46.
Back at home, Johnson and Lasker called Paige, who told them the new list also was wrong.
Paige instructed them to go back to the polling place where they would be allowed to vote with provisional ballots for District 41.
The neighbors were right all along.
Errors in District 41
In a statement Tuesday, the Maryland State Board of Elections said 721 District 41 voters were incorrectly placed in District 40, including Johnson and Lasker, when city election officials updated their records for the new maps.
The error affected 325 voters on three blocks of West 40th Street, about 200 voters on a block of University Parkway, and nearly 200 voters on three blocks of Dolfield Avenue, according to the statement.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the state board of elections, said Tuesday the board’s goal right now is to “get voters the right ballots.”
Affected District 41 voters will vote by provisional ballots if they vote in person; those who requested mail-in ballots will be sent a new one.
Charlson said there are stopgaps to ensure no mail-in voter votes twice. Each ballot packet gets tagged with a tracking number. A second ballot packet received from the same voter voids the first one.
But state officials said they can’t update electronic poll books used at polling stations while voting is ongoing “without introducing risk to the process.”
If a voter unknowingly casts a ballot from the wrong district and never casts a second one, Charlson said the voter’s state and congressional votes will be counted, but their legislative district votes will not.
Charlson said 99.9% of voters have been assigned to the correct legislative and congressional districts. It’s “less than one tenth of 1%. That’s what we’re working on now.”
The Baltimore City Board of Elections notified affected mail-in and in-person voters of the error and advised those voting in person to cast provisional ballots “because your legislative district in the poll books is wrong.”
Johnson and Lasker received their letters Tuesday.
This story has been updated to clarify that voters were incorrectly assigned by the city board of election following redistricting.