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Ballot vendor blames Maryland officials for delay in reaching Baltimore voters for Tuesday’s primary

Leslie Parker Blyther of Baltimore places her ballot May 21, 2020, in a drop box outside the city's Board of Elections office on the first day that drop boxes were available for voters in the June 2 primary.
Leslie Parker Blyther of Baltimore places her ballot May 21, 2020, in a drop box outside the city's Board of Elections office on the first day that drop boxes were available for voters in the June 2 primary. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Officials at a vendor that state elections officials blame for a delay in ballots reaching Baltimore voters for Tuesday’s primary say the state was at fault, not them, for the holdup because it delivered the voter information files late that the company needed to address and mail ballots.

The 330,000 delayed ballots have been the most high-profile glitch during the lead-up to the primary, which is Maryland’s first attempt at a statewide election held mostly by mail. It includes citywide races for mayor, City Council president and city comptroller.

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Ballots for the race, printed and mailed by Minnesota vendor SeaChange, began to enter the postal system April 27. Baltimore’s were among the last on the state’s county-by-county schedule, due to be mailed May 8. After complaints from city voters about not receiving ballots, state officials revealed May 17 that the ballots hadn’t gone out as planned. They were mailed beginning May 15, with most of them taking another week to arrive at voters’ homes.

Amid a public outcry and pressure from Baltimore’s legislative delegation, many of whom felt the city was vulnerable to voter disenfranchisement, state officials said SeaChange misled them, twice telling elections officials the ballots had been mailed on time.

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Wendi Breuer, president of SeaChange, said that’s not the case. Maryland delivered several voter files for the state’s largest counties four to five days after an April 21 deadline the two agreed on, she said.

Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, acknowledged that Baltimore’s voter list was delivered late to the company. However, she said, SeaChange committed to still deliver the ballots on time, she said.

“While SeaChange stated that there could be an impact to the schedule, SeaChange did not change their schedule for Baltimore City ballots,” she said.

Breuer said SeaChange officials warned the state the late delivery of the lists created a risk of delay for Baltimore City ballots and for 670,000 ballots for Montgomery County.

“We were keeping them up to date all the way,” said Breuer, noting that 20 to 30 emails were exchanged. “We were letting them know that things were at risk.”

She declined to provide the emails or a timeline of when they were exchanged, citing client confidentiality.

Charlson maintained the vendor twice told the State Board of Elections — on May 7 and May 11 — the ballots were being mailed on time.

“SBE relied on this incorrect information when communicating with the public, advocacy organizations and candidates,” she said. “While some files were late, it was the misleading information provided by SeaChange that led to the unmet expectations and the confusion over the ballot delivery process.”

Like the Baltimore City ballots, the Montgomery County ballots were delayed in reaching voters. Because ballots reached voters so late, the state added two in-person voting centers for Tuesday to the four original sites in Baltimore and expanded the number of drop-off boxes in the city from five to 15.

Democratic state Sen. Cory McCray of Baltimore, who has called for an apology from the State Board of Elections over the delayed ballots, said he hopes to question SeaChange officials and state administrators in a hearing after the primary.

Maryland’s complaint about SeaChange is one of several problems elections officials across the country reported this spring involving the company, a Baltimore Sun review found.

Officials in Victoria County, Texas, reported that 2,700 ballots for the state’s March 3 primary were not mailed to their Gulf Coast community the first week of February, as scheduled. By Feb. 21, most had yet to arrive, the Victoria Advocate newspaper reported. Elections Administrator Margetta Hill told the paper the county won’t work again with SeaChange.

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In Bastrop County, Texas, just southeast of Austin, election officials sounded an alarm in early March after learning SeaChange mailed three ballots per voter to at least 480 county residents. At least 14 of those voters cast duplicate ballots, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Ballots in Bastrop County also arrived late to voters, elections officials said. A first batch was sent four days later than scheduled. A second batch was dropped in the mail on Presidents Day, 13 days overdue and on a postal holiday. The mailing date was also just one day before early voting began, according to the Austin newspaper.

Breuer said technological issues were at fault for the Bastrop County issue and have been resolved. The issue was “very, very narrow in scope," she said, and “represented .0001% of the primary ballots SeaChange is responsible for.”

South Carolina officials also have been critical of SeaChange. Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the South Carolina Board of Elections, said last week the state was recommending against its counties using the company after Maryland officials discovered ballots bound for Charleston, South Carolina, mixed into a shipment of Maryland ballots. SeaChange also printed ballots for Charleston.

Breuer said only 20 Charleston ballots were in the Maryland shipment, something she blamed on the U.S. Postal Service.

The ballots were rerouted to South Carolina and never sent to Maryland voters, Breuer noted.

“This whole thing has ballooned,” she said. “It’s something we didn’t even do.”

Dave Partenheimer, a spokesman for the postal service, said the ballots were “mislabeled” by SeaChange and inadvertently sent to Maryland.

The complaints against SeaChange come amid a nationwide scramble to increase voting by mail. Before the coronavirus pandemic, only half a dozen states had widespread vote-by-mail programs. In the virus’s wake, numerous others moved to expand their voting options.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan delayed Maryland’s primary and approved a plan to mail ballots to eligible registered voters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed much of the state’s economy and forced residents to stay in their homes.

That required an abrupt increase to the state’s contract with SeaChange. The company had planned to print just 155,000 absentee ballots. Under the new plan, SeaChange agreed to print 3.4 million.

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Maryland is SeaChange’s largest statewide vote-by-mail contract, Breuer said. The contract includes the November general election and runs through December.

Breuer called the recent events an “unprecedented surge” and acknowledged it put pressure on the country’s election system.

“In the end, all vote-by-mail ballots will be received in time for voters to cast and mail the ballots by the method of their choice,” she said. “I think we’re better prepared than we ever have been to manage what’s coming with this general election.”

As of Thursday, the Maryland Board of Elections reported more than 643,000 voters statewide had returned completed ballots. That included 56,130 in Baltimore’s Democratic primary.

McCray, the Baltimore state senator, called communication from state elections board about what’s happened with the initial distribution of ballots “unacceptable.”

“Whether the vendor was responsible, whether the director, Linda Lamone, was responsible — how much did they inform the board?" he asked. “I really want to hear the whole thing.”

There have been some calls for Lamone’s resignation over the ballot delay. Earlier this month, Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said publicly that he and Hogan had fielded such requests. He noted the governor cannot remove Lamone; the State Board of Elections appointed her.

Hogan said Friday he hopes the board “lives up to its commitment to the voters and that the primary election goes off smoothly on Tuesday, and that after that, SBE will evaluate what happened as we look toward the general election.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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