State election officials should have been more transparent about the disappearance of early returns from the State Board of Elections website on the night of the primary last week, the board’s deputy administrator said Thursday during a panel discussion about what can be learned from the election.
Early results for Baltimore, which initially appeared on the website late Tuesday, were removed after officials found that a mistake in the way some ballots were printed had led to incorrect results being tabulated for a City Council race.
Officials were not initially sure how widespread the problem was, said Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections. The results were pulled off the website out of an abundance of caution, she said.
“It had no impact on the ballot counting, but when something like that happens, it clearly makes people anxious,” she said. “We should have been more quick in explaining what happened.”
Charlson joined the discussion hosted by the Baltimore Votes Coalition to gather input on the primary which was the state’s first held almost entirely by mail. State officials made the decision to change the format of the election in March in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, and there is still uncertainty around whether November’s election, which will decide an important presidential race, will also be held by mail.
Charlson said Thursday that she and other election officials are preparing for a more traditional election in which voters participate in person and those who want to vote by mail request a ballot. But Gov. Larry Hogan has the ultimate authority. State election officials have asked him to make that call by mid-June.
Numerous problems arose during the primary as election officials made the swift transition to a vote-by-mail system. Ballots sent to all eligible voters had the wrong date printed at the top because they were produced before the decision to postpone the election was made. Ballots were also delivered late to Baltimore residents, a problem state election officials pinned on out-of-state mail vendor SeaChange, who they said promised the ballots were mailed on time. The vendor has argued the state was late in delivering voter lists.
On primary day, voters waited in lengthy lines, many for more than an hour, as turnout exceeded the expectations of election officials. While more than 90% of people heeded the encouragement to vote by mail, a segment of the population still sought out in-person voting because they did not receive a ballot or felt more comfortable with the process.
Charlson noted that Baltimore offered two more in-person voting centers than other jurisdictions across the state due to the delayed ballots, but “clearly, it wasn’t enough,” she said.
“This was an example of where the state board made a decision based on the facts that they had at the time. It was a lot more dire of a health situation in March," she said. “Understanding what the world would look like on June 2, I believe there would have been more voting locations.”
Charlson said the state plans to bolster its election call center for November as well after callers reported lengthy wait times.
To address the issue of Baltimore’s late ballots, which was one of several problems the state reported with its mail vendor during the primary, election officials have started looking at other printing companies, Charlson reported. The state’s contract with SeaChange currently extends through December, according to a copy obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
Charlson said she would like to use a vendor in Maryland, but said the state’s standards for a ballot printer are high.
“If the timing marks aren’t correctly aligned, it won’t be counted correctly,” she said.
Coalition members offered their own suggestions for improvements in November as well, including a local ballot printing vendor, the disclosure of problems in real time and the formation of a task force, including members of the public, to help identify potential problems in advance.
Nicole Hanson, a reentry advocate with nonprofit Out for Justice, chided state officials for failing to heed the call of several voting rights groups ahead of the primary to form a similar task force.
“A lot of these issues could have been avoided by SBE if they had listened to voting rights advocates,” she said.