With big increase in provisional ballots, some election results in Maryland could hang in the balance

The late-discovered computer glitch that will force as many as 80,000 voters to cast provisional ballots Tuesday has the potential to delay election results for races up and down the ballot, analysts said.

While the provisional ballots may not ultimately decide the outcome of the crowded Democratic primary for governor, the uncertainty around how many provisional ballots will be cast could make candidates reluctant to concede a close contest on election night.

“If it’s close, I can’t imagine anyone concedes until every vote is counted,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College.

Exactly how many provisional ballots will be cast is an open question. Elections officials don’t expect to know that until Friday, according to Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Baines Charlson. And those ballots won’t be counted until the following week, on Thursday, July 5.

John T. Willis, an expert on Maryland elections, estimates that if turnout among the 80,000 is a robust 40 percent then 32,000 provisional ballots could be cast on Tuesday.

There were about 15,000 provisional ballots cast in the course of the 2014 primary, which means the glitch could bring the total tally on Tuesday up to more than 45,000 provisional votes.

Since about 55 percent of the state’s voters are Democrats, that means roughly 25,000 of those votes would be cast in the Democratic primary statewide.

While it’s impossible to predict who those voters would pick in the governor’s race, it’s unlikely the breakdown among candidates would differ that much from people who voted on normal ballots on election day, said Willis, executive in residence at the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore.

Still, that’s enough provisional ballots to throw into question a statewide governor’s primary race separated by 5,000-10,000 votes, he said. And enough to determine the outcome of House of Delegates races, in which the top-three vote-getters win.

“It’ll definitely increase it, but it won’t be something the system has never seen before,” Willis said.

Willis noted that more than 78,000 provisional ballots were cast in the 2016 general election.

“This is exactly why you have provisional ballots,” Willis said. “It’s when you have administrative mistakes.”

The provisional ballots won’t be counted until July 5, giving local officials time to verify the registration for each voter. Charlson said the increased number of ballots might end up adding a few hours to the counting process that day but otherwise wouldn’t be a problem.

Strange things can occur in Maryland elections — as voters old enough to recall the 1994 governor’s race can attest. That year Democrat Parris N. Glendening squeaked by Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by a margin of 5,993 votes. It was January when a judge ruled in Glendening’s favor. A 1998 House of Delegates race was decided by six votes.

And in Virginia last year, a legislative race ended in a tie and was decided by drawing lots.

Kromer, who conducts the Goucher Poll, said the two front-runners in Maryland’s Democratic primary race for governor were statistically tied in all recent polling and a hard-fought, close race could come down to 10,000 votes or less.

“If it’s close, they’re not going to be able to call it,” she said. “It would be surprising if anyone within that gap would concede.”

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