Why Maryland is still counting votes days after the primary

July 17, 2022  | Updated July 22, 2022 

Washington Post

Voters requested a record number of mail-in ballots, but elections officials must wait two days to start counting them

It could be days or even weeks before analysts declare winners and Maryland elections officials certify results in competitive July 19 primary races.

Voters requested an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, which cannot begin to be counted until two days after the election. They’d returned 213,000 as of Monday; another 286,300 had been requested and not yet returned.

“We’re used to, in most contests, knowing who the winner is when we go to bed,” said Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy administrator at the Maryland State Board of Elections.

“This election is different,” she said. “We’ve never had half a million people request a mail-in ballot.”

Local boards will post mail-in ballot results at the end of each counting day. But it is unclear how many days each jurisdiction will need. In tight races, that could mean an excruciating wait.

Here’s what you need to know.

Will we know results on election night? If not, when?

In races determined in a landslide, probably. For many closer or local contests with fewer votes dividing the candidates, probably not.

The governor’s races on both the Republican and Democratic sides appear very close, according to recent polls, and some campaigns are bracing to wait a week or more to learn who won.

Votes cast during early voting, from July 7 to 14, and on Election Day will be tabulated and posted within hours of the polls closing. But with as many as 497,000 mail-in votes uncounted, it will be difficult to determine winners.

Election officials estimate that some counties will finish counting their mail-in ballots by July 29, but others won’t until the first week of August.

Depending on how the votes add up, however, it may be possible for analysts to call the race before the count is finished. Local boards of election control when and for how long ballots are counted.

“You can guess, just like me,” Baines Charlson said.

Turnout is typically low outside of presidential years, and has hovered at between 20 and 25 percent of the state’s roughly 4 million voters in recent gubernatorial elections. But an intensified political climate and voters’ newfound interest in mail-in voting have the potential to change that.

There’s also no recent election to indicate how many mail-in ballots would come back and how many will need to be counted, so it is hard to estimate how long it will take. Maryland does not typically hold primaries in July. Usually, fewer than 2 percent of voters ask for a mail-in ballot. Of those, about 70 to 80 percent get returned, elections officials said.

This year, 16.6 percent of registered Democrats and 8.7 percent of registered Republicans requested them.

The sheer volume returned is already seven times more than the last governor’s race.

In 2018, 30,000 mail-in ballots were cast in the primary. In 2022, however, voters have already returned 213,000 as of Monday; another 286,300 have been requested and not yet returned.

Why will it take so long?

A few reasons: Maryland is the only state in the country that forbids election officials from reviewing ballots and counting them until two days after the election.

Each ballot also has to be opened and inspected — by hand — by a bipartisan team of judges before it can be counted. By law, that process may not begin until 10 a.m. on Thursday, two days after the election.

Local boards of elections also have been shorthanded, with election judges working the polls and canvassers counting ballots afterward. Each jurisdiction sets its own hours for counting the mail-in ballots.

“I’m sure every local board of elections could use anyone who is available,” said David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials.

Amid the popularity of voting by mail during the pandemic, voters requested more than 10 times as many mail-in ballots this year as in 2018.

Why aren’t mail-in ballots getting counted until two days after the election?

In 2020, during the pandemic, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) used emergency powers to suspend that law and start counting ballots early to conduct a nearly all-mail primary.

After the shutdowns — and the emergency powers — ended, state lawmakers passed a bill to change the law.

But Hogan vetoed it because it did not also contain new election provisions he wanted.

When a small percentage of votes came by mail, counting them two days after the election did not generally affect the outcome except in very close races, Baines Charlson said. Now, it’s a different case.

Elections officials considered asking a judge to intervene but determined there was not enough time to get a ruling. The state board may take the matter to court before the November election.

Do any other states do it this way?

No. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maryland is the only state that forbids mail-in votes from being counted before the polls close. In states where they are counted ahead of time, results are not released until after all voting is finished.

What does security look like? Where and how are the ballots kept until they are counted?

Maryland voters must actively request a mail-in ballot, either by filling out a print form or requesting one online. The online request form requires voters to enter a Social Security number and driver’s license number to request a ballot.

Each ballot envelope has a bar code so it can be tracked by the voter. Voters can log in to the board of elections website and see whether their ballot is in transit or has been received by local boards. Once that ballot is opened and scanned, it will be labeled “counted.”

Voters are required to sign an oath on the outside of the envelope, and only ballots with signatures will be opened and counted. Any valid ballot in a drop box by 8 p.m. on Election Day or postmarked by July 19 and received by July 29 will be counted. Ballots missing a signature will be set aside, and local election boards will attempt to contact voters to come and sign them before 10 a.m. on July 29. That process — known as curing — varies from one local board to another.

Ahead of the election, officials are organizing ballots by type as they come in and sorting them into batches to be counted later. Baines Charlson said they are stored in a secure location by local elections boards and tracked.

How are mail-in ballots counted? By people or machines?

Both. Each ballot is reviewed by a two-person canvassing team that has one Republican and one Democrat. The canvassers review each ballot to make sure it doesn’t have any rips, tears or, perhaps, coffee stains that would prevent a machine from reading it. Ballots that can be scanned are set aside in batches and tracked through the counting process.

For damaged ballots that can’t be scanned, the canvassing team copies the voter’s choices onto a blank ballot, checks its work and then sends the ballot off to be scanned.

What if my mail-in ballot didn’t arrive?

First check with your local elections board. But don’t worry, there’s a safety net: You can cast a provisional ballot in person on Tuesday. Election officials will set it aside and count it only if you don’t also return the mail-in ballot you requested.

Voters can check the status of their ballot on the Maryland State Board of Elections website. But if you have a mail-in ballot, election officials encourage you to cast it and return it by mail or in one of more than 200 drop boxes across the state.

Casting a provisional ballot creates additional work for election workers who are already processing an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots.

When and where do I have to return my mail-in ballot?

They must be postmarked by July 19 or inside a drop box in your home county by 8 p.m. on that day. A list of drop box locations statewide can be found here. Montgomery County created a map of drop boxes.