The BTU’s Computer Voting Controversy
The Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) used an electronic touch-screen system for its biannual officer elections on May 19. Only the incumbent slate of candidates, which won in a landslide, was listed on the first screen, making it possible to vote for that ticket without seeing a list of alternatives to consider. In protest, union members have been holding weekly pickets at BTU headquarters. BTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is currently investigating the matter.
The BTU hired Elections USA, Inc. of Quakertown, PA, to design its electronic voting system. While touch-screen systems are speedily replacing paper punch-card ballots nationwide and will be used in Maryland in the November elections, they remain fiercely controversial. The BTU elections have proven to be no exception.
“The first screen [of the electronic ballot] was like a billboard saying ‘Vote Here’ for the incumbent,” said Myles Hoenig, a Southwestern High School teacher.
The BTU refused “under the advice of counsel” to release a copy of the screen design to the Report “until the completion of the AFT’s investigation,” according to BTU spokesperson Carla Tyler.
Several BTU members confirmed that voters had to press a button at the bottom corner of the screen to view the list of challengers. When the votes were processed, BTU president Marietta English had won with nearly three times as many votes as her nearest challenger.
Tyler defended the screen design. “The night before [the election], all of the candidates were invited here to review the machine, to go through the voting process.... At that time, no one mentioned any concerns.”
Clarisse Herbert Brown, one of English’s three challengers for the BTU presidency, gave a different account of the meeting. “Though we did talk with [Elections USA] the night before the election,” Brown said, “we didn’t get a chance to see the screen.”
Tyler said if Brown and others had raised their objections at the meeting, “we could have at least addressed their concerns.”
Asked if it would have been technically possible to change the screen the night before the election, Tyler replied, “I won’t say it would have been possible, but it would certainly have been up for discussion.”
Tyler said the other candidates’ slates did not appear on the first screen because they were “incomplete,” missing candidates in several slots. Although Tyler claimed the BTU Election Committee applied this same standard in the 2002 election, English’s slate in that contest, when she ran as a challenger, was featured on the first screen even though it was incomplete, lacking candidates for five of the 21 slots.
Tyler said the English administration’s Election Committee sent every union member the policies and procedures governing this year’s election by certified mail on April 20. The slate registration due date was April 26.
Connie Goodly, co-chair of the Elections Committee, offered no explanation as to why the registration deadline so nearly followed the rules publication. Brown claimed she did not receive the registration rules mailing until after the due date had passed, and charged that the delay was “due to interoffice politics.”
Tyler confirmed the Committee determined election policies and procedures, including ballot design, in “a closed meeting.” Brown and other teachers expressed concerns about the Committee’s independence, pointing out that the English-headed Executive Board, by appointing the Committee, indirectly managed an election in which some of its members were candidates.
This was within the legal framework of the BTU constitution, which gives the Executive Board the authority to establish all rules and regulations for the conduct of elections. Only the Executive Board can change the BTU constitution.
To protest the 2004 elections, Clarisse Brown, former BTU president Irene Dandridge, and other teachers picket weekly outside the BTU office at 5800 Metro Drive. They have successfully lobbied the AFT to launch an investigation into the election.
Protesters said they also hope to draw attention to the union leadership’s fiscal secrecy. The BTU does not publicly disclose how it spends the budget it generates from member dues, which last year totaled nearly $4 million. According to Tyler, union members have access to the BTU Agency Fee Report, which forecasts fiscal expenditures. However, that report details only estimated, not actual, expenses.
Hoenig, a Green Party candidate for the 14th district City Council seat, said the 15 percent BTU member turnout in May’s election shows the union’s electoral process needs reform. “We ought to read into the low turnout a general disconnect of the people who should be most involved,” said Hoenig.
He stressed that the issue goes beyond winners and losers. “My purpose is to see a fair election, whether it results in an English victory or not,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome, I want to see the bulk of our teachers involved in a fair process.”
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This story was published on August 3, 2004.