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Vote-counting in Baltimore mayor’s race delayed as election officials focus on one City Council district

The Baltimore City Board of Elections canvasses the ballots in the Democratic primary District 1 Council race.

Baltimore elections officials on Thursday didn’t count any additional ballots in the race for mayor, instead spending the day’s canvass sorting out a mistake that affected one City Council race.

Two days after Tuesday’s primary, the city still had no more than the earliest returns in the mayor’s race. Mail ballots counted last week, plus the votes cast at six in-person sites on Election Day, provided only a limited picture of who might be the city’s next leader.

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City elections officials say they have not counted ballots that arrived by mail since Saturday or ballots placed in drop boxes this week.

In all, while they have tallied roughly 79,000 ballots so far in the Democratic primary, city Election Director Armstead Jones could not say Thursday afternoon how many ballots had arrived that are still waiting to be counted.

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“The only number I can give you is what’s been scanned into MD Voters,” Jones said at 3:30 p.m., referring to the software system that tracks ballots that have been received. “The lady that can look it up is gone. I don’t do that MD Voters stuff.”

The incomplete returns left candidates and residents in limbo.

“The longer they delay counting the ballots and doing it in a transparent manner, it’ll further erode public confidence,” said the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the NAACP’s Baltimore branch.

Maryland’s first attempt at a mostly mail-in election saw several problems, prompting calls for the state elections director to resign. While the switch always meant that official results would be delayed, many expected frequent updates from the elections board after daily canvassing.

Instead, city elections officials did not count ballots Wednesday. On Thursday, they announced that the day’s canvass would be devoted to the Democratic primary in Council District 1 in Southeast Baltimore. That’s where the state elections board reported incorrect returns Tuesday, due to a printing error on some ballots.

So, city elections board workers did not count any additional votes for mayor, Council president or comptroller — three powerful, citywide positions that were heavily contested.

A representative of the campaign of former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was leading the Democratic primary for mayor in early returns, came Thursday to the board’s West Baltimore warehouse to observe the canvass, but was asked to leave on the grounds that no mayoral votes were being counted.

So far, the only returns available are based on about 75,000 of the ballots that voters delivered by mail or placed in election drop boxes, and another 3,800 votes cast in person.

Dixon led with 30% of the vote, followed by City Council President Brandon Scott with about 25%. Former U.S. Treasury Department official Mary Miller rounded out the top three with 17%.

It is expected that some ballots will continue to come in; ballots postmarked Tuesday are valid as long as they arrive by June 12.

About 133,000 people voted in the 2016 Democratic primary.

Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, cautioned that with an unknown number of outstanding ballots, it was too soon to call the mayoral race. There’s an extra level of uncertainty because there’s no data available on precinct-level returns.

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“We call races based on where turnout is coming from,” he said, but in a mostly mail-in election, that option is off the table.

There’s not even geographic information from the limited number of in-person voting centers: Voters could go to any of the six sites in the city, and in-person returns were reported as a whole, rather than by center.

Jones said Thursday his staff finished the process of copying and rescanning the 3,662 ballots in the District 1 race by mid-afternoon, at which time the canvass closed for the day. Jones said there was not enough time left Thursday to begin counting more ballots.

“Sounds like a really long day at the Baltimore Board of Elections,” Democratic City Councilman Eric Costello, who ran unopposed, tweeted. “I wish my work day ended at 4 p.m. Must be nice.”

The elections board responded after 7 p.m. on Twitter, saying while no further votes were being counted, workers were still at the warehouse preparing to canvass the next day.

Staffers were expected to resume counting at 9 a.m. Friday. Jones said his staff also planned to work through the weekend.

He said he’s confident he would finish the entire count by June 12, the deadline to certify the results. Staffers may need to work until as late as 10 p.m. as that date approaches, Jones said.

Baltimore elections board president Bruce Luchansky referred questions about the election and its handling to Jones, whose salary is $104,000, according to state records. Jones reports to the bipartisan, five-member board, whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

State Senate President Bill Ferguson said he understands the decision to triage and focus Thursday’s canvass on the district race with the most apparent problems. What matters now, he said, is getting the rest of the results “as quickly, accurately and transparently as possible.”

Along with other leaders of the General Assembly, the Baltimore Democrat has called for a legislative hearing later this month to go over what went wrong.

“We will certainly hold the appropriate officials or agencies accountable,” he said. “We can’t have this happen again in November.”

Dixon spoke to reporters Thursday outside her Hunting Ridge home, saying that she of course wants to know the results right away, but was staying calm.

“Let’s make sure the process is going right and every vote is counted,” she said. “I’m taking one day at a time.”

Scott’s campaign manager, Marvin James, said the team was preparing to see more results Thursday, but had to recalibrate.

“The board has a responsibility to be highly communicative during an election,” he said. “Right now, it seems to me that they’re not doing that to the best of their abilities.”

Lagging behind the front-runners in early returns were former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah with 12% and incumbent Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young with 7%. Former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith conceded Wednesday after early returns showed him with 6% support.

Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr questioned whether the state elections board could provide more resources to the city to expedite the process for getting results.

“Baltimore City’s elections are some of the most important in the state right now,” she said. “It should be all hands on deck to both right what was wrong and ensure Baltimore residents have faith in the outcome.”

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Voters’ rights advocacy groups, including Black Girls Vote, on Thursday echoed calls for state elections administrator Linda Lamone to resign. The groups demanded the canvassing process allow for additional in-person observation, and that actions be taken to ensure November’s election runs more smoothly.

On Thursday, District 1 City Council candidate Paris Bienert came to watch the canvass, as did several representatives for incumbent Councilman Zeke Cohen.

Employees worked in teams of two Thursday to manually copy the ballots cast by voters onto fresh copies that could be read by electronic ballot scanners.

“From what I can tell, all the volunteers and the Baltimore City Board of Elections does seem dedicated to accurately tabulating every single ballot," Bienert said. "That’s encouraging after the frustrating and disheartening process it has been up until this morning.”

Erroneous results for the race were reported late Tuesday on the state’s website before the mistake was discovered. Early returns posted Thursday following the canvass showed Cohen with 63% of the vote.

“I am disappointed by the process that forced today’s count,” Cohen said in a statement.

Thursday’s work to correct the ballot error only covered ballots received so far. Any District 1 ballots still to come in must also be specially handled.

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