Thousands of uncounted provisional ballots in Maryland primary election leave key races undecided

With thousands of provisional ballots uncounted across Maryland, key races — including the Democratic primary for Baltimore County executive and hotly contested state legislative races — are undecided.

A late-discovered computer glitch forced as many as 80,000 voters to cast provisional ballots Tuesday, delaying the outcomes of some election results up and down the ballot.


State officials blamed the problems on the Motor Vehicle Administration, which failed to forward information to the Maryland Board of Elections after voters used the MVA to update their registration information. The errors sparked outrage and calls for an audit.

Only hundreds of votes separated the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County executive and several key legislative races.


Early returns showed a virtual tie between Baltimore County executive candidates Vicki Almond, a County Councilwoman; Jim Brochin, a state senator; and John Olszewski Jr., a former state delegate. The winner will face Republican Al Redmer in November.

Several key state legislative races — including an election in North Baltimore’s 43rd District — were also close. There, incumbent Del. Curt Anderson was in a close contest to keep his seat. Anderson is being investigated by the General Assembly’s ethics committee for alleged sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.

“I can’t imagine anyone concedes until every vote is counted,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College.

Exactly how many provisional ballots were cast Tuesday is an open question. Elections officials don’t expect to know the number until Friday, according to Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Baines Charlson. And those ballots won’t be counted until the following week, on Thursday, July 5.

The counting of provisional ballots is generally a matter of routine that doesn’t change the outcome of races. But in tight elections those votes can make a difference.

In 2016, the count was closely watched in Baltimore when the 7,600 outstanding votes looked as though they could close the gap between mayoral candidates Sheila Dixon and Catherine E. Pugh. Although Dixon, a former mayor, made gains, the outcome ultimately remained the same as on election night and Pugh went on to become mayor.

John T. Willis, an expert on Maryland elections, estimated that given the MVA problem, as many as 45,000 provisional ballots could have been cast Tuesday. Four years ago, about 15,000 provisional ballots were cast in the primary election.

Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous won Maryland’s Democratic primary for governor Tuesday, promising to deliver a progressive agenda that makes college free, legalizes marijuana and raises the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The computer glitch affected some voters across the state who had tried to change their registration address or party affiliation through the MVA since April 2017.

Over the weekend, the Board of Elections said about 18,000 voters were affected. But on the eve of the election, officials said the figure was more than four times higher.

The problems prompted Democratic legislative leaders to call for the immediate resignation of Motor Vehicle Administrator Christine Nizer. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordered an audit of what went wrong.

On Election Day, the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP demanded answers.

What you need to know if you'll be casting a provisional ballot in Tuesday's primary.

“The leadership of the Motor Vehicle Administration and the Board of Elections must immediately demonstrate that they have the capacity to accurately explain the size and impact of the problem and fix this violation of the public trust or they must make room for leaders who are able to restore confidence in Maryland elections,” the Rev. Kobi Little, a spokesman for the organization, said in a statement.


When the count of provisional ballots begins next week, Charlson said, the increased number of ballots might end up adding a few hours to the counting process that day. But she said she didn’t think the workload would be a problem.

Willis noted that more than 78,000 provisional ballots were cast in the 2016 general election.

“This is exactly why you have provisional ballots,” Willis said. “It’s when you have administrative mistakes.”

Strange things can occur in Maryland elections, as voters old enough to recall the 1994 governor’s race can attest. That year Democrat Parris N. Glendening squeaked by Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by just 5,993 votes. It was January when a judge ruled in Glendening’s favor.

A 1998 House of Delegates race was decided by six votes.

In 2011, City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed lost an election bid against incumbent Warren Branch by only 43 votes. She came back in 2016 to defeat him.

In Virginia last year, a legislative race ended in a tie and was decided by drawing lots.

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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