You’ve done the work.
You filled out the application for your mail-in ballot. Maybe you submitted it via the mail or navigated the state’s online application system.
Now a ballot is about to be on its way to your house, and you’ll fill that out, too. Whether you mail it back or hand-deliver it to one of hundreds of ballot drop box locations about to spring up across the state, you’ll wipe your hands and pat yourself on the back. You’ve done your civic duty in the midst of a pandemic.
But there’s still a chance your vote won’t count.
In Maryland, there are several ways your ballot can get tossed without being tallied — and it isn’t just a freak occurrence. Nearly 35,000 ballots were not counted during the June primary. And that number could climb in November as turnout is expected to spike, local election boards are swamped and voters continue to make use of mail-in ballots.
Among other things, you need to be sure to sign your postage-paid ballot envelope. And you need to get it in the mail early enough.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland is offering numerous ways to vote this fall. Voters can participate in the election in person on Election Day at voting centers or take advantage of early voting starting Oct. 26. Voters also can request to have a ballot mailed or emailed to them. Those ballots can be returned by mail or placed in ballot drop boxes.
State officials expect to begin mailing ballots to voters Thursday.
In addition to the much-anticipated presidential contest, voters will also have the chance to weigh in on a congressional race pitting Democrat Kweisi Mfume against Republican Kim Klacik. And Baltimore voters will choose a mayor in a race that Democrat Brandon Scott is heavily favored to win.
The majority of ballots — 30,442 — that went uncounted in June were received late by local election boards. Ballots had to be placed into drop boxes by 8 p.m. Election Day or postmarked by that day and time. The postmarking process tripped up some voters. Simply placing your ballot into a mailbox is not enough to ensure that it is postmarked the same day.
Others were marred by slow mail service. Even if ballots have the proper postmark, they must also be received by the second Friday following the election. That date was June 12 for the primary. That month, local election directors saw small numbers of ballots with the proper postmark arriving up to that date.
For the Nov. 3 general election, ballots must be received no later than Nov. 13.
Concerns about the speed of the U.S. mail have been front and center in the lead-up to the election. Delays in deliveries from the U.S. Postal Service have been widely reported, as has the removal and decommissioning of mail sorting machines across the country.
Maryland election officials have responded by increasing the number of ballot drop boxes from 75 during the primary to 270 this fall. Officials also have encouraged voters to get their instructions for mail-in voting directly from the state rather than from the U.S. Postal Service, which has sent voters generic instructions for voting by mail.
A media campaign recently launched by the State Board of Elections is encouraging voters to mail in their ballot as soon as possible to avoid any potential snags with the Postal Service.
Voters also have to remember to include their signature on the envelope. The signature is part of an oath that swears you are the registered voter who requested the ballot.
Signing your name to your ballot sounds simple enough, but voters are prone to forgetting, particularly those who have never voted before by mail. During the primary, 3,290 ballots were rejected across Maryland for a lack of signature. That’s almost 10% of rejected ballots.
That number could have been higher had local election boards not made efforts to “cure” some of those ballots. If a ballot with no signature is received early enough, election officials can try to contact the voter who cast it and get them to sign it before Election Day.
Ballot curing may have played a role in reducing the total number of rejected ballots for the June primary, when 2.4% of all mail-in ballots received were tossed. During a special election in April, Maryland’s first attempt at voting by mail, there was no formal curing process in place. Then, 3.3% of ballots were thrown out.
But ballot curing is dependent on local election staffs having time to contact voters, something voting rights advocates worry may be in short supply this fall. Local election directors have warned of their limited teams being stretched thin as they process mail-in ballot applications — a task they did not have during the primary when all voters were mailed a ballot without having to request one.
Baltimore City Elections Director Armstead Jones said his staff has already processed more than 60,000 applications, but that’s well shy of the total number he expects.
He worries that "the closer we get into starting the process, these things will be flooding us to death. There’s not enough staff to go around.”
Even as they are still processing application requests, local election boards are also supposed to begin counting ballots that start to arrive. An emergency regulation passed by the State Board of Elections allows local boards to begin canvassing ballots, as the counting is called, on Oct. 1 in hopes of speeding up the count and making a mid-December deadline to submit results to the Electoral College.
Officials are prohibited from releasing early vote tabulations until after polls close on Election Day.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said she and other voting rights advocates are concerned about the time constraints on local election boards. Common Cause has been reaching out to the boards in advance to offer help.
If local boards are willing to let advocates call voters and cure ballots, the group is willing, Antoine said. But no local boards took the group up on the offer during the primary.
“Even if you want to reach out to these voters, do you actually have the capacity to take that on?” she asked the local boards.
Once ballots are sent to voters, Antoine said, Common Cause is going to increase messaging to remind people to sign their ballots. She hopes to see the state’s media campaign do the same.
Maryland voters can avoid one pitfall that is currently being litigated in other states: signature matching. Voting by mail was instituted on an emergency basis in Maryland, and the state does not have the technology in place to match the signature on a ballot to a voter’s file or other state records. As long as your ballot is signed, it should be counted.
Janet Millenson, a member of the League of Women Voters Maryland’s voter service team, said ballot curing doesn’t need to be a problem this fall if voters just remember to sign their ballot envelopes. Processing and tallying ballots are likely to take longer than usual in November due to the heavy use of mail-in voting, but if everyone takes an extra minute to check their ballots, the process will be that much faster, she said.
“Sign your oath, sign your oath. Did I mention sign your oath?” Millenson said.