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Maryland vote counting for November election to begin Oct. 1 in anticipation of avalanche of mail-in ballots

Maryland is going to get a jump on counting what’s expected to be hundreds of thousands of ballots coming by mail for the Nov. 3 election. The state elections board decided Wednesday that tabulation of ballots returned by voters will start Oct. 1. In this April 22, 2020, photo, Baltimore City elections board workers count ballots at a West Baltimore warehouse.
Maryland is going to get a jump on counting what’s expected to be hundreds of thousands of ballots coming by mail for the Nov. 3 election. The state elections board decided Wednesday that tabulation of ballots returned by voters will start Oct. 1. In this April 22, 2020, photo, Baltimore City elections board workers count ballots at a West Baltimore warehouse. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland is going to get a big jump on counting what’s expected to be hundreds of thousands of ballots coming by mail for the Nov. 3 election. The state elections board decided Wednesday that tabulation of ballots returned by voters will begin Oct. 1, the earliest start in the nation.

The move, which the board approved unanimously, was made in hopes of speeding up the canvass in a year when election officials expect 50% of voters to participate via mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. Also, turnout is anticipated to be high for the presidential race.

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Results will be embargoed until election night at 8 p.m., when in-person voting centers close.

More than 10 states allow canvassing to begin before Election Day, but none as early as Maryland’s new date, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado, which is a vote-by-mail state, allows counting to begin 15 days early.

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The state board also announced additional drop boxes would be available for ballots and chastised certain local boards that had not submitted information about the number of judges they still need and an assessment of their Election Day voting sites.

In other years, counting of absentee votes has started after Election Day. Then, in the days leading up to June’s primary day, local elections boards began to count ballots that had arrived early as part of a massive influx of mailed ballots due to the pandemic.

But there was no early voting for the primary. For the general election, early voting runs from Oct. 26 through Nov. 2 — right up to the Nov. 3 Election Day. That’s later than usual, meaning that the same workers running early voting sites wouldn’t be available to count votes during that period.

That left election officials worried about meeting an Electoral College deadline for presidential election results. Electors are to convene Dec. 14 to cast ballots for president and vice president in their respective states. Those ballots must be received by the president of the U.S. Senate by Dec. 23.

Local election directors in Maryland lobbied to begin counting ballots earlier in hopes of meeting that deadline.

Guy Mickley, Howard County’s election director, told his county board last month he was concerned he might not certify Howard’s votes on time even if counting began early because of a shortage of staff to count the ballots.

“Nineteen years, we’ve never ever not met a certification deadline, but I’m not going to push a very tired and volatile staff to meet that deadline,” he told his board.

There is also pressure from an anxious populace accustomed to knowing who won on election night to deliver results as soon as possible.

Maryland voters have the choice of voting in person in the fall, either on Election Day or at early voting centers. Voters also can request a ballot be sent to them via mail or email, and return that ballot via the mail or in a ballot drop box.

State election officials announced Wednesday than 150 additional ballot drop boxes have been ordered for the election, bringing the state’s total to approximately 270.

An initial group of 127 drop boxes will be installed at various locations across the state Sept. 28 and the rest will be put in place as they arrive from the vendor, said Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy administrator of elections.

Local election directors received a stern rebuke Wednesday from the state board after some failed to submit information detailing how many election judges have signed on for November and the number of voting sites that have been confirmed.

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Of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, eight reported no data for Election Day, including the counties of Baltimore, Howard, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s. Ten reported no information regarding early voting.

State board members were incensed. Chairman Michael Cogan said the board had a reasonable expectation that the numbers would be fluid, but turning in nothing is unacceptable.

“Clearly, they have to know they’re sending in something that has no value,” he said. “It’s worse than useless. It’s counterproductive.”

The board voted unanimously to approve a motion directing the local directors to submit their reports.

Several state board members also reported hearing from people who volunteered to serve as an election judge and felt they were dismissed. Some were told to call back in several weeks, Cogan said.

“When a person steps forward and raises their hand and says, ‘Here am I, send me,’ you do not tell them to call back in a couple of weeks,” Cogan said. “You do not put them off. You reach out and you take their hand and you say, ‘Thank you.’”

David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, said after the meeting that the board’s criticism was unfair. The state’s plan to open 360 voting centers on Election Day was approved just a week ago, giving Maryland’s largest counties little time to firm up the locations. Several were hesitant to submit the information until it was finalized by their local election boards, he said.

Baltimore County approved its plan Wednesday. Instead of the county’s standard 230 polling places, just 31 voting centers will be offered.

Anne Arundel County officials held a news conference Wednesday to announce seven early voting locations, 29 ballot drop box locations and 28 voting centers.

Several election board members also expressed concern over a growing number of ballots that have been requested via email. Of the 262,621 ballots requested thus far by voters across the state, 55,457 have asked for them to be delivered by email.

Some on the board were concerned such requests would slow the counting process further. That’s because ballots delivered electronically must be printed by voters, and the state’s scanners cannot read ballots on standard copy paper. Those ballots must be manually copied by teams of election workers.

Board member Kelley Howells asked whether an email could be sent to the more than 55,000 voters who requested such ballots so far, asking if they would switch from online delivery to getting a ballot by mail.

”I fear a lot of people just do this because they’re comfortable on computers and not because they need it,” she said.

Board member Malcolm Funn said such a request could send the wrong message to people who are choosing to vote.

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”There’s a culture out there where their right to vote has been impinged upon for years,” Funn said. “You may not understand, but there’s a population that may feel you’re trying to tell them how to vote.”

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State election officials said contacting the group in question would be possible, but noted that if a voter changed his or her mind, it would create work for the local election boards who would need to respond.

Board members opted to survey local election directors before proceeding with the idea.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Taylor DeVille and Olivia Sanchez contributed to this article.

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