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Baltimore’s primary problems are latest for a city and state with a history of mistake-ridden elections

Early fears of ballot issues were realized in Baltimore's primary and the results remained unclear. J. Gormly-Rack, at left, waited to vote Tuesday outside the UMB Community Engagement Center.
Early fears of ballot issues were realized in Baltimore's primary and the results remained unclear. J. Gormly-Rack, at left, waited to vote Tuesday outside the UMB Community Engagement Center. (Amy Davis)

As Tuesday’s primary approached amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, everyone anticipated problems — from getting people to vote by mail or drop-off rather than in person, to mailing ballots to residents in time, to confusion over the delay from April to June.

All that materialized, to a certain extent, and then there was a new problem: voters and candidates woke up Wednesday to find that partial returns reported for Baltimore City — including the critical and close race for mayor — had vanished from the state elections website.

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In a city and state that has a history of mistake-ridden elections, officials are demanding an explanation.

“I am very, very, extremely disappointed in the actions taken by our local and our state elections boards,” said state Sen. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, who had earlier expressed concerns about problems in mailing ballots to city voters. “Were they doing their due diligence?”

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The last mayoral primary had its own issues, albeit different ones. The 2016 primary was so plagued with problems — such as nearly 1,200 more votes were cast than voters who checked in at the polls ― that state officials were forced to decertify. The outcome remained into doubt for nearly a month before then-state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh was declared the winner by fewer than 2,500 votes.

She defeated former Mayor Sheila Dixon that year, only to resign from office last year in the wake of a self-dealing scandal over her “Healthy Holly” children’s books.

Dixon was among the top contenders in Tuesday’s primary and led in the early returns from votes counted before primary day and partial returns from in-person voting.

Even critics acknowledged this would be a problematic election, complicated by the coronavirus crisis that discourages large public gatherings and led to delaying the April 28 primary to Tuesday.

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The ballots mailed to voters had the original date on them, and there were delays in mailing them to city voters, and some never showed up at all. Some residents who did receive them felt more comfortable voting in person, nonetheless.

Del. Nick Mosby, who is running for City Council president, called the primary night problems “unacceptable and not fair to voters, the candidates or their supporters.”

“I am extremely disappointed by the inability of the State Board of Elections to tabulate and publish the results in a timely manner,” said Mosby, who chairs a House subcommittee on elections. He called on state elections chief Linda Lamone “to articulate a clear process to arrive at a remedy for what went wrong.”

He also urged state officials to thoroughly review all processes and staff.

“Free and fair elections are the hallmark of our democracy, and we must have absolute confidence that our elections are administered competently,” Mosby said.

No one expected full returns on primary night, given that ballots could be postmarked as late as Tuesday, and all mailed-in or dropped-off ballots underwent a quarantine period after they arrive for health reasons.

But after voting concluded, even partial returns vanished early Wednesday from the state elections website and city elections officials provided no in-person voting totals Tuesday night, as had been expected. They also said no canvassing would take place Wednesday.

The early returns reappeared after nine hours mid-morning Wednesday on the state elections board website, with the addition of partial results from voting centers.

A review of the primary four years ago found 1,650 ballots mishandled, and nearly 12,00 provisional ballots inappropriately scanned without judges determining those casting them were eligible. Another 465 provisional ballots were erroneously not considered.

Additionally, either eight data files vanished for about a day after the primary, some polls opened late, and some released felons received letters from the city Board of Elections erroneously telling them they might not be able to vote, despite a new law making them eligible.

In April 2020, there were also concerns when a special election was held, primarily mail-in, to fill the remainder of the term of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. About 20,000 ballots sent by mail to Baltimore City voters were returned to elections officials, marked as undelivered. More than 5,000 votes mailed in for that election were not counted, mostly because they came in late. An additional 660 were not tallied because voters failed to sign them.

Elections officials blamed an out-of-state vendor, SeaChange, for delays in mailing ballots. But SeaChange blamed Maryland election officials for sending them voter information later than expected.

While McCray did not go as far as Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, a Republican, in calling Wednesday for Lamone’s resignation, McCray said the General Assembly will be seeking answers.

McCray faulted elections officials for failing to provide more than six in-person voting centers in the city, especially when there were indications last month that many people had not received mail-in ballots. Some voters faced long waits and were not able to cast their ballots until hours after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

“You can be prepared for that,” he said. With school buildings closed by the coronavirus shutdown, officials had plenty of available sites for voting.

“We need a better understanding from beginning to end," McCray said, "in reference to the challenges at the state board of election, the vendor and the local board of elections.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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