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About 1 in 10 ballots went undelivered to Baltimore City voters during 7th Congressional District special election

Nearly 1 in 10 ballots could not be delivered to Baltimore City voters during the special election in April, raising concerns for the June 2 primary, which is also being conducted by mail.

The data, released by the Maryland Board of Elections late Tuesday, shows that 20,367 of the more than 230,500 ballots sent to Baltimore City voters could not be delivered before the April 28 special election. An additional 4,355 ballots were undeliverable to Baltimore County voters, while 3,886 were not delivered to Howard County voters — about 3% of all ballots in those two jurisdictions.

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The figures are being calculated as state election officials take stock of the lessons learned from Maryland’s first election held primarily by mail. The special election, which was held to choose a successor for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, was conducted by mail by order of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in response to the new coronavirus pandemic. The rapidly spreading virus has killed nearly 1,700 Marylanders and sickened more than 34,000 others, forcing the closure of businesses and a stay-at-home order that has been in place for Maryland residents since March.

More than 480,000 ballots were mailed for the special election, which included only voters in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. The district includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. Voters were strongly encouraged to return the ballots via mail using postage-paid envelopes or by placing them in drop boxes offered in each of the three jurisdictions in the district.

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Those who did not receive ballots by mail or who were unable to vote by mail were allowed to use in-person voting centers, offered on a limited basis at just three locations. Election results show voters heeded warnings about the potential health risks of voting in person. Just 1,009 people made use of the voting centers April 28. But that also means thousands more likely were unable to vote if they did not receive ballots.

The undelivered ballots concern voting rights advocates, said Tierra Bradford, a policy manager for voting rights group Common Cause Maryland. But it’s also a problem the group anticipated.

“Maryland isn’t a vote-by-mail state, and it’s a newly implemented program,” she said. “That’s why in the special election we’ve been stressing there should be in-person voting.”

Bradford said a strong educational campaign needs to accompany the switch to voting by mail to make sure voters understand the process.

Leaders in Maryland are paying close attention to the results of the state’s first test of a vote-by-mail system because Maryland is preparing to do it again on a much larger scale.

While the special election proceeded on schedule, the state’s primary, originally scheduled for the same day, was moved to June 2 to give election officials more time to discuss the logistics of holding a large election during the pandemic. Maryland’s Board of Elections decided to hold the primary, which includes presidential nominees as well as numerous contentious local races, such as Baltimore mayor and council president, via mail with limited in-person voting centers.

Ballots already have been mailed to the more than 4 million voters who are eligible to participate in the primary, the last of which were sent to Baltimore residents Friday. That means there is little election officials can do to remedy the state’s voter registration rolls and the addresses on them to ensure they are accurate.

Maryland officials already limit the universe to which ballots are sent. Only eligible voters received ballots by mail for the special election and primary. Eligible voters are those who have successfully received mail in the past. Voters whose election-related mail has been returned twice are placed on an inactive voter list, although they remain registered and are able to vote. More than 19,000 voters were marked as inactive for the special election.

During a Wednesday hearing of the state’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, state election officials presented the number of undeliverable ballots as well as statistics on ballots that were returned but not counted. A total of 5,135 ballots were not counted in the special election, 80% because they were received late. Ballots had to be postmarked, not just dropped in the mail, by April 28.

An additional 660 were not counted because they lacked a signature.

“We were not surprised by the figures,” Linda Lamone, the state’s elections administrator, told the committee. “We had hoped they would be better, but we weren’t surprised.”

Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy election administrator, said local election bureaus have been instructed to contact voters who return their ballots without a signature in hopes of getting one before Election Day. The department also has allocated $1.3 million for an educational campaign, including TV, radio and print advertisements, to ensure that voters understand that ballots must be postmarked, not just placed in the mail by Election Day.

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State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George’s County and the chairman of the committee, asked whether election officials could contact the voters whose ballots were rejected during the special election in an effort to help them vote in June. Charlson said a list of such voters could be compiled, but she was unsure whether there would be time to reach them.

Election officials on Wednesday highlighted additional problems that arose during the special election or that already have been an issue in the June primary. Lamone acknowledged a problem reported in April in which voters who requested absentee ballots were missed when ballots were mailed. Lamone said that problem fell on “their shoulders.”

“We simply forgot to send the file to the printer with the absentee ballots,” she said. “We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Elections officials also are working to rectify a mistake made with the instructions for 90,000 primary ballots delivered to Prince George’s County voters last week. Instructions for ballots were provided only in Spanish. Lamone said that mistake was made by the state’s mail vendor and English-language instructions have since been mailed to those voters.

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Lamone praised her staff and local election leaders for their work implementing vote-by-mail thus far.

“They literally had a couple of weeks to restructure their entire election, and I think they did a terrific job under the circumstances,” she said.

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