Investigation into Baltimore elections irregularities nearing an end, state says

The review of Baltimore's primary election is expected to be finished on Thursday.

State officials said Wednesday their review of Baltimore's primary election was nearing an end, as they continued to investigate why votes outnumbered check-ins at the polls.

Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy administrator at the State Board of Elections, said she expected workers to finish the review Thursday. Officials have focused on 60 precincts — about a fifth of the city's 296 — where irregularities were "significantly" greater than in other Maryland jurisdictions.

"There are probably only 20 precincts left that haven't been reviewed at all," Charlson said Wednesday. "We will have looked at 100 percent of the precincts by tomorrow."

Charlson said officials planned to present their preliminary findings at a meeting Thursday of the State Board of Elections.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that the irregularities, which led the state board to decertify the results last week, underscored the need for better oversight by Gov. Larry Hogan's administration.

"I hope they do a thorough assessment of the Board of Elections and make recommendations for changes so something like this doesn't happen again," said Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat.

A spokesman for Hogan, a Republican, said he did not understand the mayor's comments.

Spokesman Matthew A. Clark said Hogan raised concerns over the winter "about the state's preparedness for the election" as it moved from touch-screen voting to paper ballots, but those concerns were dismissed by elections officials.

"The State Board of Elections is not under the control of the administration," Clark wrote in an email. "It's an independent agency and its director has been in place since 1997."

The governor appoints members to both the state and city boards.

John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who has studied Maryland elections, said Hogan wields some influence, through funding, contracts and appointments, but has no role in running an election.

"He doesn't have any administrative oversight, nor would you want him to," Willis said. "The best elections systems in the world are independent."

The Board of Public Works cut $1 million in voter education funds last year, Willis said.

"Cutting $1 million out of the voter education fund was a clear negative," he said. "Resources help and voter education helps, particularly when you change voting systems."

State officials — aided by election officials from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties — continued their review of election data in a Baltimore warehouse Wednesday.

Officials believe the discrepancy between votes and check-ins to be smaller than 2,400 — the rough difference in votes between state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who was declared winner of the Democratic primary for mayor, and her closest rival, former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

In heavily Democratic Baltimore, the winner of that party's primary has for decades gone on to win the general election.

Rawlings-Blake said that "there's no reason to question the outcome" of the primary.

"There's reason to question the management oversight," she said. "The process could have been a lot cleaner, a lot smoother and a lot better managed."

Election officials say they believe the irregularities were caused by voters or election judges improperly scanning provisional ballots — from voters who might not have been eligible — on Election Day.

If that's the case, it could prove impossible to remove the ineligible votes from the final tally.

If the review uncovers instances of double-voting, city elections director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. said, that information would be referred to prosecutors for further investigation.

"Anybody who's reported as voting twice would be turned over to the special prosecutor," Jones said.

For several weeks, activists and candidates have raised concerns about the integrity of the primary in Baltimore. Eight data files went missing for about a day after the election, and some polling precincts opened late.

Thirty-four released felons — eligible to vote under a new law — received a letter from the city Board of Elections before the primary telling them erroneously that they might not be able to vote.

Officials started the review this week, working mostly in private. It was opened to the public after Dixon's campaign asked a Baltimore circuit judge to intervene Tuesday evening. State officials and the campaign agreed to allow the public to observe from a designated area.

Linda Eberhart, a Dixon supporter, watched the review for hours Wednesday.

"I'm glad it's open, but I'm sorry we had to go to court to make it open," she said.

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, an activist with the group Voters Organized for the Integrity of City Elections, or VOICE, also was on hand to monitor the work.

Several City Council primary races and the city's judges race were decided by hundreds — or in some cases, dozens — of votes.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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