The next phase of Maryland’s 2022 primary will kick off Thursday as elections offices across the state begin canvassing the hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots cast.
Thus far, returns from in-person voting, both early and on primary day, have painted an incomplete picture of several key races across the state. The Associated Press declared gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox the Republican nominee, however, the race for the Democratic nomination for governor remains too close to call with at least 168,873 Democratic mail-in ballots still uncounted.
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.
The surge of mail-in ballots received during the 2020 presidential election were actually counted earlier. A measure passed on an emergency basis allowed local boards of elections to begin canvassing ballots weeks ahead of time.
Local elections directors across the state said Wednesday said they were ready to begin intense counting operations that likely will include at least some of the upcoming weekend.
“We are going to canvass very aggressively,” said Ruie Lavoie, elections director for Baltimore County.
She said county officials plan to begin Thursday morning and count until roughly 7 p.m. More than 35,000 mail-in ballots out of about 70,500 requested by county voters were cast by Monday.
“We’re going to start and we’re going to just keep going,” Lavoie said. “We’re planning on working straight through the weekend.”
Baltimore County’s canvass will be livestreamed on the election board’s website. While that was required of all local boards in 2020, it’s not this year. However, the public must be given the option of watching the count in person.
Pivotal races in Baltimore County remain undecided including the contest for state’s attorney. Challenger Robbie Leonard holds a narrow 860-vote lead over incumbent Scott Shellenberger based on in-person returns.
Across the state, almost 500,000 mail-in ballots were requested by voters, while only 213,019 had been returned as of Monday. The numbers stand to increase as totals collected from drop boxes on primary day and sent via the mail are tabulated.
Incomplete turnout figures show about 17% of the state’s 3.7 million eligible voters participated in the primary in person. The addition of mail-in ballots already cast will bring total turnout to roughly 23%, a figure comparable to the 25% turnout Maryland saw in the last gubernatorial primary in 2018. Turnout in 2014 was around 22%.
“We are not looking at an abysmally low turnout,” said Nikki Charlson, deputy director of the Maryland State Board of Elections. “It’s a question of whether we’re a little higher than normal or at normal.”
Baltimore City Election Director Armstead Jones said he has a staff of 20-25 ready to begin counting mail-in ballots on Thursday. That day, Jones said he plans to continue counting until 6 p.m. The city’s election board will decide whether staff will work over the weekend, but Jones said he will recommend working Saturday, not Sunday.
“Everybody is tired,” he said. “You’ve got to have a good clear mind to do things.”
Jones was not willing to estimate how long it will take to count the 21,813 mail-in ballots already received from city voters. Several citywide races hang in the balance, most notably the highly watched battle for Baltimore state’s attorney.
With early votes and 95% of primary day precincts reported, challenger Ivan Bates leads in the race with 41% of the vote. Two-term incumbent Marilyn Mosby trails with 32% while challenger Thiru Vignarajah has 27% of the vote thus far.
Results will be posted to the state board of election’s website as they are uploaded by local boards, Charlson said. When they become live will depend on what time local boards finish counting each day and send results to the state, she said.
A count of the number of mail-in ballots received compiled by the state will continue to be updated overnight, Charlson said. Elections officials expect the return rate to be lower this year during the gubernatorial primary. Often, unaffiliated voters request ballots but don’t return them when they find they cannot vote for particular races due to Maryland’s closed primary, Charlson said.
Over 40,000 mail-in ballots were sent to unaffiliated voters this year, but just 5,835 have been returned so far.
Anne Arundel County officials aim to canvass 13,000 mail-in ballots on Thursday, said Richard Siejack, deputy director of the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections. The county has received about 18,000 so far.
Siejack couldn’t say how long the count would take, but all options are on the table, including counting into the weekend if needed, he said. Preliminary results will be announced later Thursday, he said. Additional canvass dates for mail-in and provisional ballots are scheduled for July 27 and 29.
The Republican nominee for Anne Arundel County executive remains undecided absent mail-in totals. Edgewater County Council member Jessica Haire held an early 864-vote lead over former Annapolis Del. Herb McMillan.
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Brooks DuBose, Alison Knezevich and Dana Munro contributed to this article.