Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater explains the State Board of Elections' decision to order the results of Baltimore's primary elections decertified. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
State election officials ordered the results of Baltimore's primary election decertified Thursday and launched a precinct-level review of irregularities.
State election administrator Linda H. Lamone said she became concerned when city officials — who on Monday certified their primary election results — later reported they had found 80 provisional ballots that had never been analyzed.
Lamone said the state also is concerned about an unusually high discrepancy between the number of voters who checked in at polling places and the number of ballots cast. The number of ballots cast was higher than the number of check-ins, she said.
"Baltimore City was not able to investigate and resolve these issues to our satisfaction," Lamone said. "We are doing a precinct-level review. We are doing this in fairness to the candidates and the voters."
The investigation is expected to stretch into next week. Lamone said state officials are working to determine the number of ballots that might be in question and the precincts where the discrepancies occurred.
She declined to discuss possible outcomes of the probe.
Baltimore's primary elections produced several close races. State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh defeated former Mayor Sheila Dixon in the Democratic primary for mayor by about 2,400 votes, and three City Council races were decided by a few hundred votes.
For more than a week, a group of activists has been raising concerns about the integrity of the April 26 primary in Baltimore. Among the issues: Eight data files went missing for about a day after the election, and some polling precincts opened late. And 34 released felons — eligible to vote under a new law —received a Board of Elections letter before the primary erroneously telling them they might not be able to vote.
An activist group, which calls itself VOICE, held a news conference Thursday to call for the city's elections director, Armstead Jones Sr., to be held accountable.
"It gives us great pleasure to know the voters of the city of Baltimore's voices were heard all the way down in Annapolis," said VOICE member Hassan Giordano, who supported Dixon. "Unfortunately, however, it's another stain on the city of Baltimore because of the gross negligence that we've seen. ... At the end of the day somebody's head needs to roll, and that just happens to be the director."
Gov. Larry Hogan, asked Thursday about the state election board's decision to decertify the city's results, noted that the panel by law is an independent body.
"We'll have to see what the results are of the investigation at the State Board of Elections," he said.
Lamone said it's not unusual for the number of ballots counted to be slightly different from the number of voters recorded as checking into the polls. If the discrepancy is larger than five voters per jurisdiction, she said, the state asks the county or city to investigate and explain what happened. But the city failed to adequately explain the issue, she said.
It is unusual for the state to intervene, Lamone said. She sent a message Thursday to all candidates in Baltimore's elections informing them of the decertification.
"Because of discrepancies in some of the data for Baltimore City, the State Administrator has decided that the election data for all precincts in the City will be reviewed," the emailed message said. "In light of that decision, the Baltimore City Board of Canvassers will be rescinding its certification of the election results pending completion of the State Board's review."
Jones confirmed that the city found 80 provisional ballots that had not been analyzed and said city officials were aware of the discrepancy between the number of check-ins and the number of ballots cast. Asked where the 80 or so uncounted provisional ballots were found this week, Jones said he couldn't recall.
"We knew some things weren't tallying up," he said. "The plan was to resolve this and reconcile all the paperwork before the state took this action."
Jones, who has been Baltimore's elections director for a decade, said he viewed the state's actions as extreme.
"They are supposedly the state agency that oversees 24 jurisdictions, but the first time I heard from her was yesterday," Jones said of Lamone. "They were changing all the rules and procedures. The manual they printed was outdated. I don't know what they expected people to do at the polls."
Jones and Lamone have clashed before. In 2006, as a member of the city's election board, he accused her of playing the "blame game" after she ordered Baltimore to immediately craft plans to fix myriad problems that arose in that year's primary.
Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at the Johns Hopkins University and expert in electronic voting, said there are a number of explanations for why there could be discrepancies between the number of check-ins and the number of ballots cast, including faulty equipment, errors by elections judges and mistakes by voters. Rubin has worked as an election judge in Maryland.
"I've seen it all" as an election judge, Rubin said. "I can tell you when you have all those people coming with different educational levels, some may think they fill in the bubbles and think they voted and take the ballot home."
Foul play, he said, should only be considered if election officials rule out all other possibilities or have evidence of wrongdoing.
"Without knowing what happened, you can't rule out anything," he said. "You can't rule out that there was some foul play. That's not the first conclusion you should draw."
John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who has studied Maryland elections, said errors aren't unusual in large urban areas. The alleged problems in Baltimore's primary fall far short of the election debacle in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, he said.
"The administrative errors that occurred are not to the degree of severity that have happened in large urban jurisdictions around the country — or happened in Miami-Dade County," Willis said. "It's nothing of the magnitude that is likely to have an impact on the outcome of the election."
Willis also noted that the city, like the rest of Maryland, implemented a new voting system at the polls in April, and added that the entire state is suffering because of a nearly $1 million cut in voter education services.
"Baltimore City has not used a paper-based system since the 1930s," he said. "Our city judges had never used this kind of system before."
Both leading mayoral campaigns said they were encouraged by the state review.
"I'm pleased that there will be additional investigation into this election because every Baltimore voter who cast a ballot deserves to have their vote counted which still has not happened," Dixon said in a statement. "I'm particularly bothered that there are provisional ballots that have not been counted even though the Board of Elections moved to certify the results. I am hopeful the state's review will provide answers to my questions about whether proper procedures were followed during this election."
Dara Lindenbaum, a lawyer for the Pugh campaign, said it welcomed the state's actions.
"This review by the board will give the citizens full faith in the election, and we look forward to final certification," Lindenbaum said. She added that she did not believe the size of the discrepancy was large enough to affect the mayor's race.
"The larger story here has nothing to do with the mayor's race," she said. "This shows you how dedicated the state board is to making sure this process is fair and accurate. Unfortunately, no election is perfect, but the state board is making sure that we can rely on the results. As a Maryland voter, I appreciate that."
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
Pugh said she "thinks every vote should be counted. There should be transparency in elections, and I look forward to the conclusion."
The Democratic nominee for mayor will face Republican Alan Walden and Green Party nominee Joshua Harris in the general election. The heavily Democratic city has for decades chosen a Democrat for mayor.
Baltimore Sun reporters Doug Donovan, Ian Duncan, Michael Dresser and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.