ROCKVILLE — When early voters headed to City Hall to cast early ballots this weekend, not all the names for City Council candidates were in the same place.
Voters instead had to click a “More” button at the bottom of the screen before seeing the names of Clark Reed and Patrick Schoof, as well as a space for write-in candidates.
How that affects the candidates’ vote totals remains to be seen after 613 people cast early votes in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election.
Next Tuesday, most voters are set to cast paper ballots with all the candidates’ names in the same place for mayor and council.
Disabled voters can cast ballots on the same type of machine used for early voting, according to acting city clerk Sara Taylor-Ferrell, whose office oversees municipal elections in the city.
“My first reaction was that this was a significant disadvantage, particularly for a candidate who isn’t an incumbent, the candidates who are less known,” said Schoof, who did not cast an early ballot.
Reed, who did cast an early ballot, showed less concern than Schoof about whether the extra click would hinder his ability to compete on a level playing field with the seven council candidates who appeared before the page expansion.
“Well, yes, I was surprised to see my name on a separate page on the rest of the council candidates,” said Reed. “After learning from election officials about how voters were informed about the split ballot, I’m less worried about it.”
Reed mentioned those officials “verbally informed” him that his name and Schoof’s were on the jump page.
“I saw the flashing ‘More’ button at the bottom of the first page and I verified the ballot could not be cast without being notified that there were more candidates on the list,” he said.
Former Mayor Steven VanGrack, who led the city from 1985-1987 and has since served as an election reform advocate, said the fact that people had to be told anything is an admission of a problem.
“They wouldn’t do that if there wasn’t a problem,” he said.
Reed and Schoof both said in separate interviews they discussed what to do about the issue but neither decided to take action.
Schoof mentioned he sent a letter to Board of Elections supervisors Oct. 25 asking about why they allowed a jump page.
Reed took a different approach.
“We were certainly concerned about being left out from the main page and we were, at one point, potentially thinking about writing a joint letter to election officials about it and I decided that I preferred to send my own letter,” said Reed. “I basically concluded that no one is doing anything wrong here as far as I can tell.
“It’s unfortunate that our names were at the end of the ballot,” he added, “but I am confident that my message, environmental stewardship, will resonate with voters to overcome this inconvenience.”
Schoof isn’t alone in expressing outrage over the jump page for candidates.
VanGrack, who donated $200 to Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton’s campaign Oct. 14, described the early voting issue as a “terrible implementation of the voting system.”
“They may be legal but that doesn’t mean they’re fair. There’s a distinct disadvantage to two candidates,” he said, later adding, “I’m not so sure a court would say it’s legal.”
He explained the problem for voters is many enter the voting booth unsure of all the candidates they plan to support.
Seeing the candidates’ names in front of them, however, may remind voters about their political identities.
“If they saw (council member Virginia Onley’s) name, they would say, ‘Ah yes, I remember she served.’ A lot of people go into the ballot with uncertainly about how they’re voting,” said VanGrack. “I agree that, in my opinion, there is a distinct disadvantage to any candidate, incumbent or first-time office seeker, whose name is listed on the second page and you have to make an added effort to make it to that page.”
According to Taylor-Ferrell, the city clerk, there technically was not a “second page.” Rather, the program only allowed voters to see a “certain number of candidates per screen.”
“It wasn’t an issue. It clearly states your name will be put on the ballot in alphabetical order,” said the clerk.
Reed recalled talking to three voters during the weekend while he knocked on doors who told him they didn’t have a problem finding his name on the ballot.
“When I asked them, ‘How was voting,’ they told me that they had not encountered any problems, that they had followed the instructions on the voting machine and they had found my name,” he said.
Schoof appeared much more skeptical than Reed about whether the early voting issue would make a difference in the final results.
“If there is a dramatic skew that would adversely affect the election by not representing voters, then we’ll have to take the next step,” he said. “That will be determined as we move forward. There are many steps that could be taken. The question is, how adverse is this problem to the election? Will it be dramatic? Will it be subtle?
“This could have been prevented if we simply thought about what we were doing,” added Schoof.
In 2013, 6685 voters cast ballots in the last Rockville mayoral and City Council election, including 429 by absentee ballots.
According to Taylor-Ferrell, 275 people requested absentee ballots as of Tuesday afternoon for the 2015 election.