Does Montgomery County’s ballot-counting system need to be fixed?


Bethesda Magazine | Bethesda Beat

Nahid Khozeimeh (right), president of the county’s Board of Elections, assists canvassers who examine and process mail-in ballots during the canvass on July 27. Credit: Photo by Steve Bohnel

After a nearly three-week wait for all votes in Montgomery County to be counted in the July 19 primary election — political observers and voters are asking: How can we improve the system?

Part of the answer lies with the veto on May 27 by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) of legislation led by state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Gaithersburg). Kagan’s bill, among other election-related changes, would have allowed election workers and canvassers to begin examining and counting mail-in ballots before Election Day. But Hogan vetoed the bill, meaning that work couldn’t start until July 21, per state law.

Election workers and several political scientists, however, acknowledge that the veto is just one of many factors that caused the delay — and that the county needs to take three steps to improve and streamline the process: Hire more election workers, pay them better, and use technology more effectively.

Examining Kagan’s bill, and the governor’s veto

Many elected officials and political insiders have pointed to Hogan’s veto of Senate Bill 163 — which would have allowed election workers statewide to begin counting ballots eight business days before July 7, the start of early voting — as a reason the election results were delayed for weeks.

David Naimon, secretary of the county’s Board of Elections, told Bethesda Beat that the board is scheduled to certify the election at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 12. The board will also explore options to start canvassing the 2022 general election in November at an earlier date, he added.

Hogan told Bethesda Beat earlier this month that he was concerned with security issues he saw in the bill, including a provision that would allow voters to cure — provide a missing signature — to their mail-in ballots by text message, beginning in June 2023.

In a veto letter, he cited issues with secure signature verification and a lack of efforts to stop ballot collecting — where a single voter or resident goes and submits mail-in ballots on behalf of multiple voters.

Kagan, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 163, said Tuesday that she hadn’t heard from the governor’s office about the concern of curing ballots by text message, and that the practice has been used by the county and other jurisdictions around the state and country. The bill would have made the process available to other jurisdictions in Maryland, she said.

Alysoun McLaughlin, the county’s acting election director, confirmed via text message that 17 county voters used the text-to-cure option during the 2022 primary election.

Kagan said the method has been “safe and confidential and manageable,” and said the governor was trying to cover for creating an issue that could have been resolved if he had signed the bill.

Change in primary date also created issues 

Regardless of the political debate that led to the delay in counting mail-in ballots, McLaughlin said election officials dealt with many twists in months leading to the 2022 primary election.

The delay of the release of 2020 U.S. Census data and then another in the drawing of congressional and state legislative maps led to one specific issue — finding space for polling places, she said.

Because the primary election was delayed from June to July, public schools that were scheduled to be polling places were no longer available because of impending construction and renovations, McLaughlin said.

“I think people underappreciated how much of a challenge it is to lose your lease on 250 [polling] sites weeks before an election and the need to negotiate new leases,” McLaughlin said. Election workers needed to find new schools and locations to use for polling places, she added.

McLaughin and other elections officials said they understand why those concerned by the long wait for results have focused on the canvassing and counting of provisional and mail-in ballots. Allowing the counting of mail-in ballots before Election Day would have been helpful in getting timelier results up, they said.

Prior to the election, there also are other tasks that election workers need to complete to get ready — like setting up equipment at early voting centers, preparing and positioning more than 50 ballot drop boxes countywide, and organizing more than 250 Election Day polling sites, McLaughin said.

More election workers needed

Having enough election workers is another issue.

President Nahid Khozeimeh, a Republican who has served on the elections board since 2006, said the board hasn’t had enough workers to do the job, especially since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

During the 2020 primary, the board relied on hundreds of county Department of Recreation employees to help because the pandemic had curtailed the department’s activities, but those employees are now back to doing their regular jobs.

Many observers and county officials have said that more pay for election workers, including the canvassers who count mail-in and provisional ballots, might help. But Kevin Karpinski, the elections board’s attorney, said he wasn’t sure that would solve the problem, noting that many of the workers counting ballots at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus were the same people who have participated in prior election cycles.

“I see faces in this room that I’ve seen for 18 years,” said Karpinski, who has served the board since 2003. “They’ve committed to the process. I don’t know that they’re really in it for the pay, they’re in it to see democracy in action.”

Pay for election workers varies depending on the type of job, but Khozeimeh said that pay for election canvassers is roughly $130 per day, or $55 per half-day (a four-hour shift).

Board Treasurer David Naimon, a Democrat who has served since 2011, said that staffing could be increased across the board, especially as early voting and mail-in balloting has become more popular.

Mail-in and provisional ballots sit in bins before they are examined by canvassers earlier this month. Photo by Steve Bohnel

“If we’re going to be doing several different types of voting at the same time, which I personally agree with, then I think we need to have the personnel to run all of them at the same time,” Naimon said. “And not necessarily assume the same people are immediately going to go from A to B to C, when each one requires a significant amount of personnel.”

Officials said integrating technology into election systems is also an issue. Throughout canvassing, election workers had to hand-duplicate the web delivery mail-in ballots that residents then mailed onto another clean ballot so they could be scanned and tabulated. Those ballots represented about 15% of the roughly 75,000 mail-in ballots received.

Karpinski said that more funding would help modernize that ballot-counting process, which McLaughlin estimated took at least over two days.

“When you say web delivery, I think the natural response is, ‘Oh, that’s quicker, that’s easier to do,’” Karpinski said. “And actually, it’s the exact opposite. It’s more work for the voter, who’s got to go ahead and print [the ballot] out and fill out the envelope and put postage on it and mail it to us. And then, we’ve got to duplicate it.”

Mail-in balloting is here to stay

Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said that the coronavirus pandemic has created a clear shift throughout Maryland — more people find it convenient to vote by mail.

It’s also clear that the current administrative systems haven’t been able to keep up with this massive shift, he said. And the shift has also shown that there perhaps needs to be a greater use of technology — including eventually allowing people to vote online.

“Some might say … that if we can build banking systems online to protect money, we should build voting systems to protect voting,” Hartley said. “It’s certainly scary to go into that realm … but for younger people who use technology and older people who don’t use technology, that disconnect can also be concerning.”

Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, doesn’t agree with online voting. He believes the increase of mail-in balloting leads to the opportunity for more fraud and claims of illegitimate elections — and he believes greater emphasis must be placed on election security.

He does agree, however, that allowing mail-in ballots to be counted before Election Day would ease burdens on local elections boards.

Some people might not like how slow and inefficient the system of paper ballots can be, but Katz said it provides better documentation and a record of overall voting and elections.

Election officials have also said improving the web delivery mail-in ballot system could improve the overall system. Sunil Dasgupta, a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County at the Universities of Shady Grove, said, however, that it would be tricky to fix, given the the systems utilized by the county elections board and the State Board of Elections.

That’s because the Maryland voting system is on a different online platform than the internet that Marylanders use in their day-to-day lives, he said. And ensuring the fidelity and security of web-based ballots by doing the scanning and tabulating strictly online is a technological and political challenge, Dasgupta added.

What’s next?

For McLaughlin, there will always be challenges for each election. In the 2020 general election, there were 255 different ballot styles countrywide — by the 2022 primary, there were 758 different kinds of ballots to prepare, she said. The increase in ballots was because of the number of races, and that voters could choose to vote by mail, at any of 14 early voting sites, or at more than 250 polling places countywide, she added.

Election officials only have one opportunity to get technology right, McLaughin said. There’s no time to test things on the fly because election schedules are all about meeting deadlines, she said. Overall, it’s a balancing act between trying to streamline the process and also maintain access for campaign staffs and other political observers.

“I’d love to be able to leverage technology to accelerate some of the processes involved in this,” she said. “But doing technology enhancements are something we certainly need to take the time to get right and I believe that it gives observers confidence in the process to be able to see these tasks, and people do this manually.”

Dasgupta noted that the interest in improving the ballot-counting process is probably directly related to the tight race for the county’s top office.

“I think the context of understanding the question is understanding how close the county executive race was,” he said. “If the difference between the county executive [candidates] was more than 7,000 ballots, would we care about the web-based ballots?”