Don’t think of it as election night. It’s really more like an election week.
With Tuesday as Maryland’s first primary held almost entirely by mail, local elections officials have one big request: your patience.
Voting by mail, with just a few limited in-person voting centers, has allowed Maryland to more safely hold a statewide election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But the method also will likely extend the amount of time it will take to tally the results.
In races that are close, as polls indicated Baltimore’s mayoral and comptroller races may be, voters shouldn’t assume they’ll see decisive results Tuesday night. When the state elections board announces results after the polls close at 8 p.m., the first batch will be votes cast last week or earlier via mail or deposited in drop boxes.
Totals from votes cast Tuesday in person at polling centers will be made public before the end of the night.
But that’s it for results on primary day.
It could be days before officials finish counting the remaining ballots — including those placed in drop boxes on or shortly before Tuesday. Ballots returned by mail had to be postmarked by Tuesday, and it could take several days for all of them to arrive. And due to health concerns, officials have been “quarantining” ballots for 12 to 24 hours after they have them in their custody, extending the counting time.
“It depends on how many people get out and vote,” Armstead Jones, director of the Baltimore City Board of Elections, said of his timeline for primary week. “We’ve got quite a few what I would think maybe are close races, because there’s a lot of candidates. It depends on what issues people are looking at."
As of Monday, 87,777 of the nearly 330,000 ballots mailed to Baltimore voters ahead of the primary had been returned. That’s about a 27% turnout thus far. By comparison, about 148,000 people cast ballots in the 2016 primary, a 45% turnout overall when counting voting at the polls on primary day, early voting, absentee ballots and provisional ballots.
Statewide, the numbers so far this year lag only slightly. About 795,500 ballots were returned across Maryland as of Monday, according to data from the State Board of Elections. That’s 23% of the 3.5 million the board sent out. In 2016, 42% of voters participated in the primary.
There’s a possibility 2020 turnout could exceed 2016 levels. Research shows that turnout increased in states that moved to voting by mail on a permanent basis, particularly in primaries, local elections and special elections. More modest increases were recorded in midterm congressional and presidential elections.
In those states, however, election officials had more time to roll out the concept of voting by mail. In Maryland, voters in the 7th Congressional District in parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County experienced a limited test in April during a special election, but Tuesday’s presidential primary is the first statewide test.
Seven other states, as well as Washington, D.C., will hold primaries Tuesday. Of those, three are like Maryland in having rescheduled from previous dates. Maryland’s primary was originally set for April 28. Of states that have held primaries since May 23, those that held elections via mail or allowed more than two-thirds of voters to participate by mail saw the greatest overall turnout, according to the National Vote at Home Institute.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections, said officials across the state are preparing for everyone to vote, even if that is unlikely.
“We don’t know what to expect, but election officials are prepared to count all of the ballots received and assist all the voters who show up on June 2,” she said.
Results are scheduled to be certified by June 12, 10 days after the primary.
Even under normal circumstances, larger counties sometimes need more time, Charlson said. During some presidential general elections, Montgomery County’s vote has taken two or three additional days, she said. Unlike other jurisdictions around the state, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties both requested the option to count some mail and drop box ballots on primary day.
Election officials won’t immediately know how many more ballots are left to be counted. An unknown number will still be in the mail Tuesday and for several more days.
That could make it impossible to know Tuesday the outcome of races. “If it’s a huge margin, you can maybe draw some conclusions,” Charlson said of some races. “It’s going to depend on how many people show up.”
Guy Mickley, director of the Howard County Board of Elections, said his board had received ballots by Monday from 24% of the county’s voters, and the majority of those were scanned already. That’s a good jump, he said, and gives him confidence that the counting process won’t see any serious delays.
Howard had the benefit of participating in the April special election, he said, so this isn’t the first attempt at counting a large number of vote-by-mail ballots.
Still, people will need to be patient, Mickley warned.
“I think people would need to have a tempered expectation that they’re not going to know the results of every winner on election night,” he said. “There’s many days after of counting ballots that will have to transpire.”
The city board plans to resume counting votes Wednesday and continue through Friday. Jones said he hopes to have most of the process wrapped up by then.
“I want to get it over just as soon as anyone else,” he said.