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Pencil or pen? Absentee ballots left Maryland voters scratching their heads

Pencil or pen? Absentee voters in Maryland received erroneous instructions for filling out ballots.

A portion of Maryland voters who requested absentee ballots in order to participate in this year's elections erroneously received written instructions to use a No. 2 pencil when filling them out, despite the fact that the state's system for reading the forms performs best when they are filled out in black pen.

However, voters who used pencil have "no need to worry," said Nikki Charlson, the Maryland State Board of Elections' deputy administrator. The error will not leave ballots filled out in pencil uncounted, she said, though it could require officials to replicate forms in pen for processing.

"If a scanner can't read the pencil mark, the local boards of elections will have a bipartisan team of individuals copy that with a black pen onto another ballot and count it," Charlson said. "There's no risk that an absentee voter's ballot won't be counted."

Charlson said the error arose because the state's previous system preferred pencil, and the instructions were not changed before ballots began getting sent out this year. However, the error was identified quickly, and the majority of the 81,910 ballots sent out as of Friday contained the correct information, she said.

Charlson did not know the exact number of voters who received the incorrect instructions, she said late Saturday.

In most cases, the system will be able to read the ballots even if they are filled out in pencil, she said. "I fully expect that the voting machines are going to be able to read and calculate and tabulate pencil, but black pen is the ideal," she said.

Every year, there are some ballots that can't be read automatically, and for a range of reasons. Sometimes there is an errant mark, or a voter has used something other than a pen or pencil. The "fail safe procedure" through which bipartisan panels duplicate those ballots has "been the practice in Maryland for years and years and years," Charlson said.

"There is a very specific procedure laid out in regulations as to how they duplicate that ballot so that the machine reads it," she said.

If the error in the instructions had threatened the ability of the local elections boards to count votes entirely, the state board would have informed voters, Charlson said. But the error was considered "more of an administrative issue," she said.

All registered voters are eligible to request absentee ballots in Maryland. For the Tuesday primary, those ballots had to be requested by April 19. To count, they must be mailed by Tuesday, and received by 10 a.m. on May 6, Charlson said.

As of Friday, the state board had sent 58,251 absentee ballots to registered Democrats, 21,230 to registered Republicans, and 2,429 to other voters. It had received back 24,002 ballots from Democrats, 8,875 from Republicans and 344 from other voters. Charlson said those numbers were normal for this point in the cycle.

By far, the jurisdiction with the most requested and returned absentee ballots was Montgomery County, where more than 20,000 ballots were requested and more than 10,000 have been returned.

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