Members of the Maryland State Board of Elections voted Monday to take legal action that, if successful, would allow local election officials to begin counting mail-in ballots earlier. Such a change could reduce delays seen in last month’s primary, when results were unsettled in some races for days and even weeks.
Current law only allows mail-in ballots — which have become increasingly popular with voters during the pandemic — to be opened and tallied starting the Thursday morning after Election Day. It’s the latest start in the nation to the counting of such ballots.
The four-member board, hoping to prevent delayed results in the November general election, voted unanimously to seek emergency relief in a Circuit Court so the mail-in ballot canvassing process can start earlier. The returns from those ballots would not be released until after the polls close on Election Day, which is Nov. 8.
“If the timing is the same as the primary election, it could be until Christmas or New Year’s that we get the results from the election,” board member Justin Williams said during the meeting.
About 345,000 voters submitted mail-in ballots in last month’s primaries, which featured highly competitive Democratic and Republican contests for governor, along with races for attorney general, comptroller, U.S. Congress, the Maryland General Assembly and more.
Another roughly 646,000 voters showed up in-person on July 19 or during early voting, returns that were mostly tallied and posted online on primary night or the day afterward. When the mail-in ballots — representing about a third of all votes cast — began to be tallied after that, candidates’ vote totals changed daily.
Races with wide margins, such as Del. Dan Cox’s win over Kelly Schulz for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, were settled on primary night. Others, like Democrat Wes Moore’s victory in his party’s nine-way gubernatorial primary, had to wait until after the second full day of mail-in counting to become clear.
While some winners’ margins narrowed during the counting — including Cox’s and Moore’s — others saw their fortunes slip away.
In the Democratic primary race for Baltimore County state’s attorney, former public defender Robbie Leonard led incumbent Scott Shellenberger by 860 votes with in-person and early voting ballots counted. Ten days of mail-in ballot counting later, Shellenberger prevailed by a margin of a little more than 2,000 votes.
County Elections Director Ruie Lavoie said an earlier mail-in ballot canvassing period would make the county’s process “a little easier,” but they still essentially will have to run two different types of elections — the traditional in-person one and the separate mail-in ballot process.
“We will still work incredible hours in order to have all the required tasks completed to certify on schedule,” said Lavoie, whose county sent out more than 70,000 primary mail-in ballots and received nearly 50,000 in return.
Changing the canvassing period also wouldn’t allow counties to process every mail-in ballot before Election Day. That’s because they’re permitted to count ballots that arrive after Election Day, as long as the ballots are postmarked by that date.
In Baltimore City, elections director Armstead Jones said about two-thirds of the 32,400 Democratic mail-in ballots returned came in before Election Day.
“I think it’s what needs to be done,” Jones said of the attempt to move up the timeline. “That way we’re not sitting there all this time. We can get a jump on getting this stuff counted.”
Election officials and state lawmakers previously pushed for an earlier canvassing period. A bill passed in the General Assembly this year would have given election workers up to eight business days before the first day of early voting to begin the process. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, saying he supported the canvassing change, but was rejecting the legislation because it did not include other elements dealing with election security.
Hogan’s spokesman, Michael Ricci, said in a statement Monday the governor “strongly supports” the state elections board’s decision Monday. He also sought to blame members of the General Assembly for not passing a “simple bill” that already would have allowed for the change.
When the outset of the pandemic led to the initial expansion of voting by mail in 2020, an executive order by Hogan allowed counties to canvass those ballots weeks in advance.
Before the State Board of Election’s decision Monday, the good government group Common Cause Maryland sent a letter to Hogan asking him to issue another executive order for this year’s election.
“Failure to take action will allow time and space for election deniers to propagate lies and conspiracy theories about our elections,” the letter read, referencing concerns some had before the primary that candidates whose standings in the tallies changed during the mail-in ballot counting could make claims of election fraud.
In 2020, the late counting of ballots in states like Pennsylvania were a mechanism for then-President Donald Trump to spread baseless claims of fraud.
In approving the legal step Monday, the board did not specify how early it will seek to start canvassing.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Common Cause, in its letter to the governor, called for starting the process at least eight days before the start of early voting. That period is scheduled for Oct. 27 through Nov. 3.
Jones, in Baltimore, said having at least 10 days before Election Day to count would greatly reduce the expected influx of ballots.
He and others will face a general election that could have more than twice the number of ballots compared to the primary. About a quarter of Maryland voters participated in the primary, according to unofficial turnout numbers. That number was about the same for the primary in 2018, the last gubernatorial election year, when about 59% of the state’s nearly 4 million voters turned out for the general election.
The State Board of Elections, in a statement later Monday, noted Maryland is the only state in the country that prohibits mail-in ballot processing until after Election Day.
The statement said the board will file a petition that seeks to show that “emergency circumstances that interfere with the electoral process require a remedy that is in the public interest and protects the integrity of the electoral process.”
It did not specify in which circuit court it will file the petition.
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.