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Maryland Elections Board officials must take responsibility for primary problems | COMMENTARY

Canvassers check 1st District Council ballots in Baltimore after printing mistakes caused issues in the primary election.
Canvassers check 1st District Council ballots in Baltimore after printing mistakes caused issues in the primary election. (Amy Davis)

Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: Initial primary returns for Baltimore City were scrubbed from the State Board of Elections’ website for nine hours early Wednesday morning without explanation, because, we later found out, printing errors affecting two races in one council district that were supposed to have been fixed in fact were not, invalidating early results.

Put another way: Election administrators had so little faith in their own Baltimore accounting, they took the drastic move — hours after the close of a critically important primary for the city — of pulling down everything. It wasn’t until most people had had their morning coffee Wednesday that any kind of statement was issued, and it did little to shed light on just what exactly has been going on at the State Board of Elections this year.

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We understand that a pandemic and last-minute shift to mail-in voting has thrown a wrench in the primary planning. But that hardly explains the multiple errors we’ve seen in the past several months, from incorrect postage instructions in the 7th Congressional District’s special general election in April, to mailing delays and Spanish-only instructions in some ballots for Tuesday’s primary.

State election officials blamed SeaChange Printing and Marketing Services, a Minnesota vendor the state is paying millions of dollars to print and mail ballots, for many of the problems — including the mistake discovered early Wednesday. SeaChange, in turn, blames the state for passing on information too late.

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We don’t know who did or didn’t do what, and it doesn’t really matter. The buck stops with the elections board, period. It’s entrusted with carrying out a function critical to our country; when we lose faith in it, we lose faith in the democratic process. At the first sign of problems, election representatives should have been crawling all over SeaChange to make sure everything the vendor sent out from then on was perfect.

The belated discovery of mistakes appears to be part of a pattern, as does blaming others. In interviews with a Sun editorial board member early last month, Linda Lamone, administrator for the State Board of Elections, and Deputy Administrator Nikki Charlson, initially dismissed questions about thousands of undelivered city ballots in the 7th Congressional District special election, claiming there was no such situation. The next day, they acknowledged the problem indeed occurred, and blamed their ignorance on the U.S. Post Office for giving them bad data. They also said, emphatically, that mailing for city ballots in the June 2 primary was on track and underway; but we later found out ballots actually were sent out a week late. (One member of The Sun’s editorial board didn’t receive a ballot until May 30 after calling to request it — and then received a second ballot on the day of the primary, June 2).

On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford said it was time for Ms. Lamone, appointed in 1997, to step down. Some wanted to see partisanship at work in the call; Ms. Lamone is a Democrat, and Mr. Rutherford a Republican. And the last time a campaign was launched to remove Ms. Lamone from her post, it came from Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.

But plenty of people on either side of the aisle were unhappy with how this primary has played out, including some of Baltimore’s Democratic mayoral candidates (because city voters are overwhelming Democrats, the primary winner is the likely general election winner, too). Brandon Scott sicced attorney Andrew Levy on the state, to express “concern with respect to a series of irregularities relating to [the primary] election and the ongoing canvass.”

Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah was more blunt: “There could not have been a more complicated election placed in less competent hands,” he said.

And both we, The Sun’s liberal-leaning editorial board, and the state’s conservative-leaning governor have called for a full report and accounting of the 2020 Maryland primary election — talk about bipartisan.

Ms. Lamone has many supporters and has performed admirably for many of her 23 years in the job. But, as Comptroller Peter Franchot — who suggested Baltimore’s elections director, Armstead Jones, also should resign — noted during a Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, “there’s something going on over there that is completely unacceptable.”

To that Ms. Lamone offers little in the way of a defense, other than to point to the unprecedented challenges of a pandemic and the recent protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

Ms. Lamone needs to take responsibility for the problems that have occurred on her watch, publicly and promptly explaining what happened and why such mistakes will never happen again. Or she needs to move on.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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