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Baltimore’s mail-in primary got off to a rocky start. What problems might lie ahead?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan calls for a full report about the problems with the primary election in Baltimore.

Election results vanished from the state website. Officials discovered ballots misprinted. One candidate for mayor sent in his lawyer.

Wednesday brought a rocky start to the canvass that should reveal Baltimore’s next mayor. By the afternoon, state lawmakers and the governor demanded elections administrators explain themselves.

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Maryland’s first statewide vote-by-mail election already meant that complete results would take longer than voters were used to, as ballots trickle in by mail and elections officials “quarantine" documents before opening them because of the new coronavirus.

But add errors on ballots and problems in tabulating returns and the primary’s close races may well end up in the courts, experts say.

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“This is a system change. We’ve never done this before in the state of Maryland — never, ever. There are going to be issues,” said John Willis, the former Maryland secretary of state who helped reform election laws.

“Is the magnitude of those issues greater than the margin of apparent winning?” he said.

In his letter to state officials, Levy asked why the state elections board removed Baltimore’s early returns overnight from its website and how he might monitor the canvass.

Elections officials have said some of the ballots were misprinted, causing errors when they were scanned. They removed those results from their website to process the ballots by hand.

“We respectfully ask that the canvass be immediately suspended unless and until we received answers to these questions and a meaningful opportunity to observe,” Levy wrote.

Under the law, any court challenge must be filed within seven days of a certified result.

Four years ago, Dixon considered such a challenge after narrowly losing the race for mayor to Catherine Pugh. Complaints swirled around that primary, too. Some ballots were missing for 24 hours. Elections officials acknowledged they could not immediately find some votes.

Board of Public Works meeting where Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford calls on Linda Lamone to resign as the state’s election director.

At one point, they counted nearly 1,200 more votes cast than voters who checked in at the polls in the 2016 primary. That forced state officials to take the unusual step of decertifying the results. In the end, Pugh was named the winner by fewer than 2,500 votes; Dixon did not take her case to court.

It’s only worth a legal challenge if the number of ballots in dispute is greater than the winner’s lead, Willis said.

“You would only get to a lawsuit if the numbers make a difference,” he said. “We don’t know how many ballots are going to come in today, tomorrow, the rest of the week. There’s no reason for anybody to run out and file a suit tomorrow because the ballots have until next Friday to get here.”

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Scott said Wednesday that he was frustrated by the gaffes and troubled by reports of voters who never received a ballot.

Martha McKenna, spokeswoman for Dixon, said people should be allowed to observe the canvassing in person. The city elections board planned to start counting ballots again Thursday at 9 a.m. and livestream the process.

Campaigns will look to challenge any ballots that were rejected from the canvass, Willis said. The candidates may also challenge results if they locate groups of people who did not receive a ballot at all.

Baltimore City Council President and Democratic mayoral candidate Brandon Scott speaks outside the Board of Elections on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

In April, Wisconsin saw the most people ever vote by mail in its primary. Postal workers discovered boxes of ballots that had not been processed and turned in. A later report by Wisconsin officials found the primary placed “enormous stress” on their systems and the U.S. Postal Service.

“All kinds of things can happen, and if the race is close, all of those become an issue,” Willis said. “How many of those kind of issues are there? And what are the number of ballots involved?”

The immediate issues show Maryland is not yet prepared to vote by mail in the general election come November, said Gilda Daniels, professor of election law at the University of Baltimore.

“To the extent that we can see where the fault lines are is a good thing,” she said, “to ensure that we don’t have this kind of debacle in the general election.”

Daniels urged voters to be patient. Gone are the days when they might learn the winners soon after the polls close.

“We do need to start adjusting our minds to the fact that we may not know who the president or any other office is on the day of the election."

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