Settle in for election ‘season’: Delay in start to mail-in ballot counting could lead to lengthy waits for Maryland primary results

July 16, 2022

Baltimore Sun

Maryland’s primary season — from the candidates’ announcements more than a year ago to the delayed voting dates because of redistricting — has already dragged on far longer than usual. And don’t expect it to wrap up quickly when polls close Tuesday.

Hundreds of thousands of Maryland voters are expected to cast ballots either in-person or by mail by the end of the day Tuesday — but a significant portion of those ballots won’t even begin to be counted until two days later.

That means final results could be delayed by days or even weeks. Close races, including both Democratic and Republican nomination contests for governor, may be impossible to call for quite a while, election workers and state officials are warning.

“The frustrating reality is that we may not know for a week or more who will be the nominees for governor,” said Democratic state Sen. Cheryl Kagan, who added the races for comptroller, attorney general, the General Assembly and more to a list of those that may face the same situation.

Election officials are barred under Maryland law from opening and counting mail-in ballots until 10 a.m. on the Thursday after Election Day.

That wasn’t the case in 2020, when an executive order from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan allowed mailed ballots to be processed — or “canvassed” — weeks before the election. It was a step that election workers called essential as they dealt with an explosion of mail-in ballots during the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hogan vetoed early counting attempt

Legislation passed by the General Assembly this year would have changed state law to give elections workers up to eight business days before the first day of early voting to begin that canvassing process. In a statement in May, Hogan said the measure would have allowed “hard working election officials to get a much needed head start on the deluge of ballot envelopes.”

But he vetoed it, he said, because it did not include elements to verify a voter’s signature if that person needed to fix an already-submitted ballot. Hogan said the lack of security measures could create “even the appearance of impropriety” and thus undermine confidence in the election.

Some say the veto itself created an opportunity for such a scenario to play out.

“Whenever you have a close race and it’s days and days after the election and numbers are changing, I think it makes it more susceptible to suspicion,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Eberly pointed to the postelection chaos in 2020, when the late counting of legitimate mail-in ballots in states like Pennsylvania were the mechanism for then-President Donald Trump and his allies to spread baseless claims of widespread fraud.

Maryland Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox helped spread those false claims for Trump, including raising doubts over the size of Democratic President Joe Biden’s win in Maryland. Now endorsed by Trump, Cox and his supporters are likely to be suspicious of the results, whether or not he beats Kelly Schulz, Hogan’s former cabinet official, Eberly said.

In one potential scenario, Eberly said, Cox’s supporters turn out in large numbers to vote in person on primary day because they don’t trust mail-in voting. Meanwhile, more of Schulz’s supporters may trust the mail-in process, a factor that could allow her vote totals to climb at a greater rate than Cox’s as the counting continues, Eberly said.

“That’s exactly what happened to Trump, and that’s exactly what he used to make his claims of fraud,” Eberly said. “We have set the stage for what happened in 2020 to happen in a microcosm here in Maryland in the Republican primary.”

Mobs of mail-ins

As of July 12, the last day to request mail-in ballots for the primary, about 505,000 voters had requested them, and about 165,000 of them had been returned as of July 14.

If every voter who requested a ballot ultimately returns it — an unlikely scenario — they would represent about 13% of all eligible voters, which could be around half the turnout that some are expecting.

In Montgomery County, the state’s most populous area and where more than 115,000 voters requested mail ballots, elections director Alysoun McLaughlin said she expected mail-ins ultimately to account for about a third of their ballots this month. That’s far above the prepandemic levels of around 8%, she said.

“It is highly unlikely that we’re going to be able to tell you who won contests on election night,” McLaughlin said.

In all 24 counties, local boards of election will face an initial deadline of July 29 to canvass and certify mail-in ballots after beginning the count on Thursday morning. But state election law allows them to exceed that initial period, essentially saying they can take as long as they need to count and certify.

State Board of Elections Deputy Administrator Nikki Charlson said she expects most counties to certify their results by July 29, but the larger ones “rarely” meet that deadline and they will likely still be counting the following week.

“It’s always a challenge to manage expectations that the election is not over on Election Day,” Charlson said. “It’s election season. It’s not a day. It’s not a week. It’s a season.”

McLaughlin said Montgomery County is one that typically doesn’t meet that 10-day postelection target. She said she expects the county to need the first week of August to complete “the vast majority of our process,” and then the following week to address any other final issues, making Aug. 12 the target date for certification.

“Our staff is accustomed to working very early in the morning to very late in the evening, seven days a week, until we certify the election,” she said.

The process for staff can be laborious, she and others say. For each envelope containing a mail-in ballot, a bipartisan team of election judges must physically review and verify the voter’s identity. The ballot is then separated from the envelope so the voter’s selections are not linked to them. Scanners record the votes and if a machine does not pick up on the voter’s choices, the workers hand copy the original ballot onto one that reflects the voter’s intentions.

Ballots that were delivered online must all be copied over by hand onto ballots that can be scanned, a lengthy process for some larger areas like Montgomery County, where more than 16,000 voters requested web-delivery ballots.

“It’s going to be pretty intense,” said David Garreis, director of elections in Anne Arundel County and president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials.

Instead of the normal 10 to 20 bipartisan teams Anne Arundel has for canvassing, Garreis said he’s planning on 50 teams — the equivalent of 100 people handling the mail-in ballot process. He’s aiming to get the work done by July 29.

In Baltimore County, elections director Ruie Lavoie said she’s also shooting for that July 29 deadline by planning a “very aggressive” canvassing operation with double the number of bipartisan teams — from 10 to 20 — and extending work hours up to 10 hours a day.

They’ll also have at their disposal three high-speed ballot scanners, a piece of equipment that is described online as being able to process 300 double-sided ballots per minute.

Baltimore City also will be using a new machine to sort up to 50,000 mail-in ballots that were requested. Similar to what the post office uses to sort mail, the massive machine takes a picture of both sides of an envelope, opens it, and records a time stamp.

Armstead Jones, the city’s election director, said it could still take “some weeks,” but declined to say exactly when he expects to finish mail-in canvassing.

“It’s a big concern,” Jones said of the changes to the timeline this year, “because it adds quite a few more days and we’re starting off behind. In a lot of cases on election night, you may not know who won.”

Waiting for ‘any election that isn’t a landslide’

The concerns over the late-counting this year are coming in large part because of how close the most high-profile races have been.

The nine-candidate Democratic primary for governor has been led fairly consistently by state Comptroller Peter Franchot, former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and former nonprofit leader Wes Moore, with several others running significant campaigns. The Republican race headed by Schulz and Cox has also been neck-and-neck, according to recent polls.

Kagan, the state senator who sponsored the bill Hogan vetoed, said those margins, combined with the influx of mail-in ballots, make it “irresponsible to announce the winners in any election that isn’t a landslide.”

After the primary day and early voting numbers are tallied starting Tuesday night, some candidates may concede if the returns so far show they have little to no chance of making up ground. But others may be waiting a while.

“We’re going to wait a week or however long it is,” said Perez, who called Hogan’s veto “one of the most idiotic things he could have done.”

“I want to tell voters, when you are frustrated five days after the election, a week after the election, maybe 10 days after the election that we don’t have a result, don’t blame your boards of election. Blame Larry Hogan,” Perez said.

Hogan’s spokesman, Michael Ricci, said the governor is a “strong supporter of early canvassing” and would have signed a “clean” version of the bill. The version he vetoed included additional measures aiming to help voters fix errors on their ballots after they’ve turned them in.

Asked whether the governor believes the late results will affect voters’ confidence in those results, Ricci said his office has encouraged state election officials to “set public expectations for when to expect results.”

“What hurts voter confidence is people needlessly politicizing the electoral process,” Ricci said in an email. “Hopefully we can count on Maryland Democrats to exercise some poise and rationality as the votes are being casted and counted.”

Kagan said her biggest concern is voters’ confidence in the process, particularly with a candidate like Cox. who has fanned those flames. Cox’s campaign did not return requests for comment.

Schulz, who has pitched herself as a natural successor to Hogan, told The Baltimore Sun while visiting an early voting center that her “concern is obviously the waiting period of time. Nobody wants to wait that long.”

She declined to comment on how she believed voters would perceive the results in light of that lengthier process, but said “we have to have faith in the process until they give us an opportunity not to have faith in them.”