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After vendor wrongly said Baltimore’s ballots were on the way, Maryland officials are scrambling to get them

Raul Sotez, left, of Interstate Van Lines rolls a ballot drop box into place at Mount Pleasant Church on Radecke Avenue, one of five drop box locations for the primary election.
Raul Sotez, left, of Interstate Van Lines rolls a ballot drop box into place at Mount Pleasant Church on Radecke Avenue, one of five drop box locations for the primary election.(Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

An out-of-state vendor failed to mail hundreds of thousands of ballots to Baltimore voters for nearly a week despite assuring Maryland they were on the way, officials revealed Tuesday amid growing concerns over administration of the June 2 primary.

U.S. Postal Service trucks have been driving overnight shifts since officials learned of the problem Sunday, ferrying ballots from Minnesota to Maryland where they are placed into the local mail stream, said Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the Maryland Board of Elections.

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“We have significant unanswered questions about the process, and after the election, we will require a full accounting with a particular focus on Baltimore City ballots,” Charlson said.

She said the state had delivered necessary voter information to the company in time for ballots to be mailed more than a week ago.

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"We are extremely disappointed that the vendor has failed to deliver according to the schedule,” Charlson said.

Maryland is mailing ballots to about 4 million voters across the state for the primary, which is being held largely by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Larry Hogan postponed the primary from April to June because of the virus.

Baltimore’s ballots were supposed to be mailed May 8, the final day of a 12-day county-by-county mailing schedule set by the State Board of Elections. Jurisdictions that include part of the 7th Congressional District — Howard County, Baltimore County and Baltimore City — were to receive their ballots later than the rest of the state in an effort to avoid confusion with the April 28 special election for Congress that also was conducted primarily by mail.

Over the weekend, state election officials, after fielding numerous questions from voters who were still without ballots, learned the mailing process for Baltimore’s ballots had not begun until Friday, Charlson said. Election officials have been working with the U.S. Postal Service since then to expedite shipments of the remaining ballots to Maryland so they can be placed in the local mail stream.

Some of the city’s ballots have arrived, and the rest are expected to hit mailboxes by Saturday, just 10 days before the election. In returning their ballots, voters must assure they are postmarked or placed in an election drop box by June 2 to be counted in the election.

Voters who do not have ballots soon can request a replacement from the city or state elections board. Those will be mailed locally, not from out-of-state, Charlson said.

The revelation comes as legislators, voting rights advocates and candidates for office ramped up pressure on the State Board of Elections, demanding more accountability for the whereabouts of ballots and additional voting measures in the city to compensate for the delay.

In a letter to the state board Tuesday, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson called on election officials to add several in-person voting centers and additional ballot drop boxes in Baltimore City and Montgomery County to ensure that voters are able to participate in the primary. Some of Montgomery County’s ballots also were delayed.

“In the best interests of public health and democracy, the further expansion of in-person polling locations and ballot drop-off locations will result in shorter lines and decrease chances of large crowds,” they wrote in the letter.

Charlson said Tuesday that 10 additional ballot drop boxes have been ordered for Baltimore and will be installed by the end of the week. Locations will be selected by the city board of elections, she said. State election officials are looking at the possibility of additional in-person voting centers.

Ferguson and Jones also requested an accounting of how many ballots ultimately can’t be delivered for the June primary. During the April special election, more than 20,000 ballots could not be delivered to voters in Baltimore, according to data provided by the State Board of Elections.

The letter from General Assembly leaders noted that ballots for other voters who had requested absentee ballots were not mailed until days before the special election due to an error by the election board.

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“This information is incredibly disheartening and damages the public confidence in the State Board’s ability to conduct a fair and secure election,” the letter states. “The State Board cannot afford to let this happen again. No Marylander should lose their right to vote due to administrative negligence."

Election officials have said no such error was made for the June 2 ballots.

Maryland contracts with Minnesota-based vendor SeaChange to print and mail its ballots. The company has been a subcontractor since 2018 and became primary contractor for the ballots in 2019.

Before the emergency move to voting by mail, the scope of the contract was significantly smaller. Only 155,431 absentee ballots were sent for the general election in 2018, compared with the 4 million for this primary.

A company representative could not be reached for comment after hours Tuesday.

The June primary includes candidates to be the Republican and Democratic nominees for president and Congress, but also several important local races — particularly in Baltimore, where there are contentious Democratic primary contests for mayor, City Council president and comptroller.

Because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city by nearly 10 to 1, the Democratic primary often determines who will win those offices in the November general election.

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