By Danielle E. Gaines
April 21, 2020
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Maryland lawmakers are urging elections officials to re-think a change to ballot counting in the upcoming presidential primary election to ensure the accuracy of results.
Del. Carl Jackson (D-Baltimore County) sent a letter to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and the Maryland State Board of Elections on Monday urging the state board to continue reporting election results at the precinct level.
The board drafted an emergency plan earlier this month to conduct the primary election, now scheduled for June 2, primarily by mail. In doing so, the board voted to waive several requirements of Maryland election law, including a requirement to report election results by precinct.
But lawmakers are arguing that precinct-level results should be maintained during the state’s first foray into widespread voting by mail to monitor potential fraud or unintentional errors.
Under current law, precinct-level results are limited to Election Day voting in Maryland, while early voting, absentee ballots and provisional votes are generally not reported at the precinct level.
Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who is vice chair of the Senate committee that oversees election issues, is preparing a memo with her own concerns about the emergency election plan, including the lack of precinct-level reporting.
Other states with long-term vote-by-mail systems all release results by precinct, Kagan said.
“Every one of the five states that have been doing vote by mail – red, blue, and purple – reports election results by precinct,” Kagan said in an interview on Monday. “And Maryland should do the same.”
Looking at voter data at a micro scale makes it easier to detect fraud, abuse or errors, the lawmakers said. For example, if election officials or watchers noticed an extraordinarily high or low turnout for a precinct, it could prompt a closer investigation for potential fraud or error, altering the election results.
“The Board’s decision to waive this provision means that while we may know who receives the most votes for a given district, we will not have the data available to review where those votes came from nor provide adequate checks and balances in the event of a contested election,” Jackson wrote.
The increase in voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been without challenges. During the rushed primary election in Wisconsin earlier this month, bins of undelivered absentee ballots were discovered after Election Day.
Jackson said he had no doubt that the pandemic ― which had claimed the lives of at least 516 Marylanders and infected more than 13,000 others as of Monday― warranted some concessions to typical election procedures to protect public health and safety, but the precinct-level reporting was still possible and should be maintained.
“I fear that the waiving of this important provision could add to an already perceived anxiety with the mail-in balloting process. In order to uphold our democratic values, it is imperative we ensure that each vote is dually counted and traceable to the correct polling precinct,” Jackson wrote.
In addition to monitoring election results, politicians and advocacy groups also mine precinct-level elections data to target political messaging in election years.
Jackson and Kagan both said they also worry that waiving the requirement in 2020 could set precedent for the practice to continue in the future.
The state board’s June 2 primary election plan will require counties to open between one and four in-person voting centers, but all active voters will be sent a postage pre-paid ballot and strongly encouraged to cast their ballots by mail.
The board also approved other changes to the ballot canvassing process, including allowing one election judge ― as opposed to the current practice of two ― to determine the accuracy of a mailed-in ballot, and to allow local elections boards to begin counting mailed-in ballots as early as May 21, with all results embargoed until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
The State Board of Elections is set to meet Wednesday.