Election Day results still are being reported, more mail-in ballots await counting, and the presidential race remains very much undecided.
But in Maryland, state officials and observers are ready to declare at least one winner the day after Election 2020: the election itself.
"While the state and local election boards did have a few glitches overall, they performed very well under very trying circumstances,” Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday at the start of the state’s Board of Public Works meeting.
That was high praise from the governor who this summer declared Maryland’s primary an “unmitigated disaster.” Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot went further this summer, calling for the resignation of state elections administrator Linda Lamone while offering her and her team craft beer if they pulled off a flawless general election.
Franchot issued a mea culpa at Wednesday’s public works meeting, hoisting beer bottles from Salisbury’s Evolution Craft Brewing and cans from RaR Brewing in Cambridge.
"I will deliver that to Linda Lamone with my apologies,” Franchot said.
The execution of the vote was not without problems: many Election Day returns from the state’s largest jurisdiction were not expected to be made public until Thursday because of a technical problem, as one observer noted. And another took issue with the wisdom of holding any in-person voting as coronavirus cases rose this fall, as predicted.
Tuesday’s election in Maryland arrived after months of tumult, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic that threw the state’s standard election plans into disarray. The state had to conduct a special election in April in the 7th Congressional District almost entirely by mail with only a few weeks' notice.
By June, 4 million voters across the state received primary ballots by mail. Turnout spiked to record levels, but the contest was plagued by lengthy lines at a severely limited number of voting centers and delays in mail-in ballot delivery.
Tuesday’s election offered up a hybrid model — yet another change. Voters were mailed applications for mail-in ballots, rather than the ballots themselves. Early voting, not available in the 2020 primary, was offered, and a larger number of Election Day voting centers opened. While fewer than the standard 1,600 polling places offered during a typical election, opening around 300 such centers allowed local elections boards to have enough election judges and supplies of personal protective equipment.
From a turnout perspective, that formula appeared to work, said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. Maryland’s turnout was “tremendous” in the midst of a pandemic and particularly for a state that didn’t have much on the line, he said.
Preliminary turnout figures have not yet been released and final figures won’t be known until all mail-in ballots are counted. But more than 1.3 million Marylanders voted via mail-in ballots ahead of the election, another 983,300 showed up for early voting and nearly 474,800 voted on Election Day. Together, at least 2.8 million people so far — about 69% of registered voters — have cast ballots, with more mail-in and provisional ballots to be tabulated.
“It looks like it worked extremely well,” Hartley said. “I think it’s a testament to the citizens of the state to figure out how it worked. There was a lot to figure out there for the average voter.”
Hartley praised election administrators at the state and local level who pulled off an election “relatively free of problems” while facing tremendous challenges.
The state board was particularly responsive to voter concerns, said Hartley, noting he was pleasantly surprised by emails the state sent to voters who requested and submitted mail-in ballots.
“I think given the back and forth of different styles of voting and the amount of time they had to adjust … it was pretty stunning, to be honest," he said.
John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state, said he, too, felt the hybrid format was successful from a turnout perspective. Maryland is on track to top 3 million voters, which would set a record for the highest absolute number of votes ever, Willis said, although not for the highest percentage of registered voters. That record was set in 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Republican President George H. W. Bush.
The total number of mail-in votes for a general election was a record high for Maryland. (The most absentee ballots the state had sent out previously was 232,000 in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency over Republican John McCain.) Willis estimated the state could have seen another 300,000 to 400,000 mail-in votes this year had ballots — rather than just ballot applications — been directly mailed to each voter.
“I thought the voters reacted well to the changing circumstances,” Willis said. “The reduction of the number of judges helped immensely the local boards. The candidates, and even some of the officials who weren’t on the ballot, they got to a lot of people in a short amount of time. It was great for politics. I think it was a good experiment.”
Willis was critical, however, of the state’s reporting of results, which he said has been slow and incomplete compared to data other states have made available.
Returns from early voting and the mail-in ballot canvass so far, as well as Election Day tabulations, were supposed to be released shortly after polls closed Tuesday. However, returns across much of the state took several hours.
And by Wednesday morning, Election Day returns remained incomplete for the state’s five largest jurisdictions. By the afternoon, state officials were promising they would post the rest of the Election Day returns Thursday from Baltimore City and the counties of Baltimore and Prince George’s.
Officials blamed the delay on an uploading process for thumb drives containing vote totals from each ballot scanner, saying each was taking four times as long as expected.
Hartley also said he views the state’s decision to offer in-person voting in the midst of the pandemic as a failure, despite the record-setting turnout for early voting.
“When we look back on Election Day and see how the state’s (COVID-19) numbers are going up and up, I think we’ll see in-person voting decisions were really a failure and a real problem,” Hartley said. “We’re spiking all over the nation in this pandemic. I think it’s irresponsible for any state to allow in-person voting.”
When the pandemic dissipates and Maryland is no longer under a state of emergency, it will be up to the General Assembly to decide if the broad use of voting-by mail or countywide Election Day voting centers are here to stay. Both Hartley and Willis said they expect to see movement in that direction, as voters have created demand for newer methods.
“It’s kind of the Amazon-ization of voting. People are going to vote from home," Hartley said. “I think the public generally liked it, and I think there’s going to be pressure to do more.”
Willis encouraged state legislators to make decisions quickly. Ideally, a new voting system would be introduced over a one- to two-year period, unlike the seven-week emergency schedule seen this year, he said. Maryland has a competitive election in 2022, including an open gubernatorial seat and a U.S. Senate seat, and the state needs to be ready, he said.
“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “Election administrators would like to know a year in advance what they’re going to do.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.