Many voters flocked to in-person polling places in Baltimore and several counties Tuesday, causing long lines and delayed results during Maryland’s first statewide election attempted largely by mail.
Hours after polls in the primary election were due to close, lines remained at voting centers across the city including Edmondson High School and Cross Country Elementary/Middle School, where voters since late afternoon had endured waits of more than an hour.
State election officials delayed releasing early tallies as the voting continued, disappointing candidates and an electorate hoping to glean some sense of the results from the incomplete numbers.
By the end of the night, 6,236 voters had cast a ballot in person in Baltimore, not quite 2% of eligible registered voters citywide. But those voters were funneled through only six in-person voting centers. The State Board of Elections limited the number in each jurisdiction to minimize person-to-person contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elections officials instead urged voting by mail or using ballot drop boxes as a health precaution. Officials reluctantly increased the number of voting centers in Baltimore from four to six only after mail-in ballots were delayed getting to voters.
Trying to shift the public’s mindset so quickly to a vote-by-mail election wasn’t realistic, said former Maryland Secretary of State John Willis.
“You can’t just tell people who have been voting in person for 10, 20, 40, 60 years, ‘Oh, we’re doing it different this time,’” he said.
Voters who appeared at the in-person voting centers Tuesday were largely divided into two camps: people who never received a ballot in the mail and those who said they simply felt more comfortable casting their vote in person.
“I just didn’t trust the drop off,” said Tamika Patterson, a 41-year-old Baltimore City resident who voted at Northwood Elementary School Tuesday morning.
Gerald Grimes, a retired city manager, received his ballot in the mail but showed up to vote at Cross Country. Voting in person is “the right process, the one that has the most built-in precautions," he said.
Turnout data released by the State Board of Elections suggested a similarly large in-person turnout in Prince George’s County. More than 8,800 people voted in person there, 3,626 more than neighboring Montgomery County.
Both Baltimore and Prince George’s County are majority African American jurisdictions. Some observers, including mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon, have suggested that minority communities, particularly African Americans, would be wary of voting by mail and might prefer to vote in person.
In-person voter turnout statewide, however, also may have outpaced the expectations of elections officials. By the end of the night, 42,561 had voted in-person across the state — a little over 1% of registered voters and slightly outpacing the percentage of voters who cast in-person ballots during the April special election for Congress which was the state’s first test of vote-by-mail.
Polls also remained open late for voters in line at 8 p.m. in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, among others.
About 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, the ACLU of Maryland asked the State Board of Elections to add more ballot scanners at Baltimore locations with significant lines. They had not gotten a response as of 6 p.m., said Amy Cruice, the group’s legal program manager.
The final number of votes cast in the primary won’t be known for several days. State officials released some results late Tuesday, but counting will resume Wednesday for ballots that arrived this week via mail or election drop boxes.
Originally scheduled for April 28, Maryland’s primary was delayed by order of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan as the coronavirus pandemic bore down on the region. Heeding predictions that the health crisis would continue into the summer, elections officials decided to hold the primary Tuesday and make it mostly by mail, sending ballots to all eligible registered voters in the state and allowing them to return them by mail or via drop boxes.
Limited in-person voting centers also were offered, but officials encouraged only those who did not receive a ballot or could not vote by mail to use them.
Long lines were the most widespread problem by day’s end. But state election officials said they also were looking into an issue in which some voters whose ballots were marked “undeliverable” by the post office were mistakenly recorded in poll books as having “voted and returned” a completed ballot. In fact, a voter with an undeliverable ballot could not have completed one — the Postal Service sends undeliverable ballots, unopened, to local elections boards. But because the pollbooks showed they had already voted, those voters weren’t able to cast standard ballots at the in-person voting centers.
Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy elections administrator, said officials were aware of about 1,000 people affected by the error as of Tuesday afternoon. The problem was reported in jurisdictions across the state, including 240 voters in Baltimore City as of 4:30 p.m.
Voters in that category were asked to use a provisional ballot, and those ballots will be counted in the final tally, Charlson said.
Charlson said many of those voters would likely have been asked to vote using a provisional ballot anyway because they were living at a new address. “The provisional ballot process is a very common way for voters to update their address with us in every election,” she said.
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It wasn’t known how many ballots the post office couldn’t deliver to voters. During the a special election in April for the 7th District congressional seat, more than 28,600 ballots ultimately weren’t received by voters in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. The city had the highest undeliverable rate, with 1 in 10 ballots returned to elections officials.
The ballot distribution process, untested in Maryland on a statewide basis until now, was problematic for some jurisdictions in the lead-up to the primary, notably for Baltimore City.
Ballots due to city voters were mailed a week later than scheduled, despite assurances from the State Board of Elections that they went out on time. The delay left city voters fewer than two weeks to complete ballots and return them. State officials said vendor SeaChange was to blame for mailing the ballots late while twice telling state officials the ballots were on their way. SeaChange’s president said Maryland was at fault because it turned over several large voter lists four to five days late.
The change in scheduling for the election created yet another issue. The ballots, emblazoned with the April 28 date, had already been printed by the time Hogan called for the delay. The State Board of Elections mailed instructions with each ballot asking voters to ignore the old date.
The abrupt move to voting by mail didn’t just upend the state’s election preparations. It’s also likely to significantly lengthen the process of tallying the results. Elections officials across the state have asked for patience from both voters and candidates.
Local elections boards began counting ballots May 21 and embargoing the results until Tuesday in an effort to shorten the process. But an unknown number of ballots clearly were outstanding Tuesday night, waiting to be counted or yet to arrive via the mail. The election is not scheduled to be certified until June 12.
Baltimore Sun Staff writers Wilborn Nobles, Daniel Oyefusi, Colin Campbell, Jonathan Pitts and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.