As tallies of votes counted trickled out in the Baltimore mayoral primary, consternation among candidates and state and local officials mounted, leading them to demand answers and accountability from elections administrators.
Former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon remained in the lead Wednesday in early returns from Tuesday’s Democratic primary, followed by City Council President Brandon Scott and former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller.
That update followed a baffling nine hours in which Baltimore City’s returns from mail-in and drop-off ballots counted before primary day, plus in-person vote totals from Tuesday, were missing from the State Board of Elections website.
Elections officials posted the information late Wednesday morning, explaining after the fact that a problem with how a ballot for a City Council district was printed led them to question its results and pull back the city’s numbers overnight. The state blamed the problem on a vendor.
Amid widespread confusion around the issue and how the state board shared information about it, Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford called Wednesday morning for the resignation of State Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone. By afternoon, the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly demanded her appearance and that of State Board of Elections Chair Mike Cogan at a joint legislative hearing later this month.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan joined the chorus, calling problems with the state board’s delivery of ballots to all eligible, registered Maryland primary voters “unacceptable." He demanded a report from the board in one month.
The final, chaotic series of events began about 2 a.m. Wednesday when the city’s early numbers for all races in Tuesday’s primary — including mayor, comptroller and City Council president — no longer appeared on the Maryland Board of Elections site. They were instead marked as “NR,” for Not Reported.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the state board, said later Wednesday that state officials removed all city results after discovering an error with returns in the District 1 Council race. Officials found the ballot’s design left it out of alignment with scanners and, at the time, they were unsure of the scope of the problem, she said.
Shortly before 11 a.m., the returns were again posted online — minus the still-problematic District 1 results. No explanation was offered until several hours later.
The Democrats in the District 1 race, incumbent Councilman Zeke Cohen and challenger Paris Bienert, raised questions Tuesday night about the early returns as they were posted. They showed Cohen, a Council member for four years, with only 39 votes, while Bienert had 1,882.
In a two-paragraph statement, the Maryland Board of Elections faulted its vendor, SeaChange, for failing to correct an error in the “ballot title” for the council contest. State officials found the error while proofing ballots during the printing process and told SeaChange to fix it, according to state officials.
“While the error was corrected in the official voting database, the error was not corrected on a portion of the ballots that were mailed to voters in District 1,” the State Board of Elections said.
Elections officials later clarified what that meant. When the ballots were printed, the header above the Council race should have included a line that read “District 1," Charlson explained, but that line was missing. As a result, all of the lines below were shifted upward by one position, causing scanners to read them incorrectly. The change also affected a Circuit Court judges’ race, which was in the next column on the ballot. However, that race was essentially uncontested, with five candidates for five positions.
No other races were impacted, state elections officials said.
The problem will be rectified by manually duplicating all vote-by-mail ballots cast. Teams of two election officials work together to copy the responses on the old ballots onto new copies, which can then be scanned, Charlson said. Rules state that those teams should be bipartisan “to the extent practicable,” she said.
Charlson said she didn’t know how long it would take to fix the issue, because not all mailed ballots have been received. As long as ballots were postmarked Tuesday, they will be counted.
State officials previously blamed SeaChange for hundreds of thousands of ballots being delivered late to Baltimore voters with fewer than two weeks remaining before the primary. According to state officials, the vendor twice lied about whether the ballots had been mailed. SeaChange’s president said Maryland turned over voter lists late and was warned of a possible delay.
SeaChange president Wendi Breuer confirmed Wednesday that the company prepared a primary ballot with incorrect positioning for District 1.
“We want to be clear that all ballot content is correct and complete,” she said. “However, a change in the ballot layout is causing a counting issue. While Maryland election officials reviewed and approved all ballots for printing, SeaChange sincerely apologizes for its role in this issue.”
The combination of the District 1 problem and the disappearing online data prompted immense concern among advocates and candidates across the city about what is going on in Maryland’s first statewide attempt at a mostly mail-in election.
A lawyer representing Council President Brandon Scott, one of the leading mayoral candidates, sent a letter to two of Maryland’s assistant attorneys general Wednesday “to express our concern with respect to a series of irregularities relating to yesterday’s election and the ongoing canvass.”
Attorney Andrew Levy demanded the state provide a new setup to allow campaigns to observe canvassing. Because of safety concerns related to the coronavirus, the city has allowed people to watch vote counting via livestream. But there have been frequent complaints about the cameras being positioned at such a wide angle that observers cannot see what is happening.
Levy asked for canvassing to be immediately suspended.
Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah, who is trailing in fourth place in the early, incomplete returns, echoed Rutherford’s call for Lamone to resign.
“There could not have been a more complicated election placed in less competent hands,” he said.
The partial in-person voting returns made public Wednesday did little to reshape the Democratic mayoral primary. Dixon’s lead held at about 30% followed by Scott with 24%. Miller rounded out the top three with 17%, figures based on about 75,000 ballots that voters delivered by mail or placed in election drop boxes, and another 3,800 votes cast in person Tuesday.
The city elections board said in-person turnout Tuesday was roughly 6,200 voters. Charlson said she believed all in-person results have been posted, but warned that any ballots cast on primary day on provisional ballots would not yet be included.
Meanwhile, former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith conceded the race Wednesday evening.
Still unknown are the results of the ballots that arrived this week by mail or were deposited in official drop boxes on primary day. More ballots are expected to continue to arrive by mail, as the requirement was only that they be postmarked by June 2. There is no way to know at this point how many total votes were cast.
Baltimore elections officials did not count ballots Wednesday.
Leaders locally and across the state expressed particular outrage at the prospect of disenfranchisement in an election postponed and retooled specifically to encourage voting. Originally planned for April 28, the primary was delayed until this week and conducted mostly by mail to ensure voters would be able to participate safely in spite of the pandemic.
In addition to demanding a report from the State Board of Elections, Hogan called on legislative leaders to hold an oversight hearing — a move House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson had already announced.
“We will take immediate actions deemed to be necessary to correct these problems and ensure our November elections are free of these issues," Hogan said.
Members of the State Board of Elections are gubernatorial appointees. Lamone works for the board.
Jones and Ferguson said in a letter delivered Wednesday to the elections board and Lamone that they expect to question elections officials about the process used to determine the number of in-person voting centers and select the mail vendor.
Compounding concerns about the disappearing results and District 1 ballots were lines at polling places across the city and elsewhere in the state. While voters were encouraged to return ballots via mail or drop boxes, many flocked to the centers. Six were offered in the city.
When polls closed at 8 p.m., lines remained for hours as anyone in line before closing was permitted to vote. The issue delayed the release of the first returns for several hours.
Baltimore City Elections Director Armstead Jones said Wednesday it seemed many voters felt more secure voting in person. Pandemic-related spacing requirements contributed to lines because it limited the number of voters that could be inside, he said.
State election officials are also investigating an issue Tuesday in which some voters whose ballots were marked “undeliverable” by the post office were mistakenly recorded in pollbooks as having “voted and returned” a completed ballot.
Because the pollbooks showed they had already voted, those voters weren’t able to cast standard ballots at the in-person voting centers. Charlson said Wednesday 1,457 voters were affected by the error and were asked to use a provisional ballot.
The total number of undeliverable ballots was still being tallied.