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Politics

Counting of mail-in ballots underway across Maryland as tight state and local races hang in the balance

The canvass of mail-in ballots got underway across Maryland Thursday, the first day of what could be a lengthy process to decide key races both local and statewide.

To this point, Marylanders have seen only part of the picture from the state’s primary Tuesday. Returns from the state’s weeklong early voting window were released Tuesday night, as were most returns from polling places on primary day. About 637,760 voters cast ballots in person, a turnout of roughly 17% of eligible voters thus far.

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Before mail-in ballots started to be counted, Wes Moore emerged from a crowded field of Democratic gubernatorial candidates with an 35,078-vote lead over Tom Perez, the next closest candidate.

But at least 250,000 more voters across the state voted via mail-in ballots this year, leaving that race and several others up in the air. The 198,282 mail-in ballots cast by Democrats have the power to shift who’s winning.

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Thursday afternoon, Democrat and former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler conceded, calling on state residents to band together to support the still undetermined Democratic nominee for governor and “reject the divisive politics and policies of the far right.” Gansler trailed in sixth place in the race ahead of mail-in ballot counting.

Canvassing kicked off shortly after 10 a.m. across the state after local boards of elections convened and swore in staff members to take on the tedious process of opening ballots, sorting them by precinct and feeding them through ballot scanners.

In Baltimore, where the race for state’s attorney remains undecided, officials counted 10,690 ballots Wednesday over the span of a seven-hour work day.

Election Director Armstead Jones said the city will continue counting through Saturday but will take a break on Sunday. Baltimore started the day with almost 25,000 ballots to count from city voters, the vast majority from Democrats.

End-of-day returns in the state’s attorney’s race showed challenger Thiru Vignarajah, in third among in-person voters, gaining ground. Vignarajah collected 4,011 new votes. Challenger Ivan Bates secured 3,712 more votes. Embattled incumbent State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby trailed with 2,172 additional votes.

Bates, who was leading the race as Thursday’s canvassing ended by a 5,689-vote margin, started his day at Baltimore’s elections warehouse watching the vote counting. The defense attorney, who was defeated in his first attempt to challenge Mosby in 2018, said Thursday he was “cautiously optimistic.”

Bates compared the process to jury deliberations during a trial.

“The case is in the jury’s hands,” he said.

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Campaign representatives from Moore and Perez also were on hand to watch Baltimore’s counting operations. Spokesmen from both said the campaigns had additional representatives stationed in other key jurisdictions such as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Brian Jones, communications director for Moore, said the Democratic front-runner feels “confident” in the outcome of the primary. Jones said Moore won’t take anything for granted in the general election, but declined to discuss strategy for competing against Dan Cox, the apparent Republican nominee.

By law, counting of mail-in ballots in Maryland cannot start until 10 a.m. on the Thursday following an election, a rule that predates the widespread use of mail-in ballots that began amid the coronavirus pandemic.

State legislators had hoped to start the process sooner, passing legislation allowing local election boards to begin counting before the election with results embargoed until Election Day. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the measure, citing objections to other parts of the proposed law.

Election results will be posted daily on the Maryland State Board of Elections website as local boards of elections finish canvassing for the day and upload results.

Across the state, almost 500,000 mail-in ballots were requested by voters, while only 250,000 had been returned as of Wednesday. The numbers still could increase as ballots returned via mail are added to the total.

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In a Hunt Valley office park, Baltimore County election workers began counting the ballots that will make the difference in tight races, including the contests for state’s attorney and County Council.

“We will be here until the job gets done,” the board’s attorney, Andrew Bailey, told a group of observers gathered in the lobby as he explained how canvassing would work.

As the process got started, the canvassers raised their right hands to recite an oath that they would perform their duties truthfully. They had more than 40,000 county ballots to count, but more could arrive, said Bailey, adding that counting could take at least a week.

Bailey expected them to process about 5,000 ballots on the first day and work well into the evening. He expects to get through a larger number daily starting Friday because they will get an earlier start.

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Those gathered to watch the ballot counting included candidates for County Council and representatives of Democratic state’s attorney candidate Robbie Leonard, who’s locked in a tight battle with incumbent Scott Shellenberger.

Two Democratic candidates for the County Council’s 6th District, Mike Ertel and Shafiyq Hinton, greeted each other with a handshake as the canvass got started. Their race is a dead heat, with Hinton edging out Ertel by 15 votes before the mail-ins were counted.

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“It’s going to be a long weekend,” Hinton said.

Ertel said there was some relief in knowing there was nothing more he could do to affect the outcome of the race, after the whirlwind of campaigning.

“When you’re in an election as a candidate, you just never feel like you’re doing enough,” Ertel said.

Bailey said every vote counts, no matter whether a race is close or not.

“When we have contests that are not close at all, we’re still here doing the same thing,” he said. “We process every ballot.”


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