Rejected Ballots, New Procedures: Lawmakers Probe Elections Officials Ahead of Mail-In Vote

Election
The Maryland State Board of Elections office in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

More than 80% of the ballots that weren’t counted in last month’s 7th District special congressional election were received late ― a trend lawmakers and elections officials hope won’t be repeated in the state’s ongoing presidential primary election.

Millions of ballots have been sent to voters for the June 2 presidential primary, which will be conducted primarily through mail, with about four dozen in-person voting centers open throughout the state on election day.

The State Board of Elections released figures this week on mail-related issues for the 7th District race, which was the state’s first endeavor into widespread voting by mail. Voting by mail is being strongly encouraged in the June 2 election, as the COVID-19 virus continues to present public health hazards.

Almost 500,000 ballots were sent to voters in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County for the special election.

Of those:

  • More than 28,000 were returned by the post office as undeliverable. That includes more than 20,000 ballots in Baltimore City alone, or almost 9% of the total ballots sent to voters in the city.
  • 152,316 vote-by-mail ballots were returned to local boards of elections. An additional 3,750 absentee ballots were cast.
  • 5,135 ballots were rejected ― 4,151 of them for being untimely. An additional 660 ballots were rejected for lacking a signature, and four ballots from voters who attempted to cast more than one ballot were rejected, according to the state board.

During a legislative hearing on Wednesday, elections officials said a $1.3 million public awareness campaign for the June 2 election will focus on several issues, including instructions on properly filling out vote-by-mail ballots, including signing an oath on the outer envelope, and the need to mail ballots early.

To be accepted, ballots must be postmarked by election day. In some cases, 7th District voters may have dropped ballots at postal facilities on or before April 28, but after mail collection times.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, urged the state and local boards to reach out to voters whose ballots were disqualified for being late to discuss the issue with them and try to better understand the dynamics of the mail delivery process.

State officials said they have been working closely with the U.S. Postal Service to improve outcomes for the June election. To avoid postmarking issues, voters can also drop ballots at one of 66 ballot dropboxes in the state between May 21 and 8 p.m. on June 2.

During a joint hearing of the Senate committee and the House Ways & Means Committee on Wednesday, lawmakers pressed for answers on other issues presented during the 7th District special election.

“It’s about making sure it’s done right for June 2,” Pinsky said.

He underscored that Maryland’s first statewide effort at voting by mail could prove to be a template for the November general election, if there’s another spike in COVID-19 cases.

“We have to move quickly in two ways: policies, procedures and implementation on the one hand, and on the other, that’s changing the culture and understanding among voters,” Pinsky said. “We not only want to capture the number of voters we’ve had in the past, but I think it’s our goal to expand the electorate, if at all possible.”

However, any major changes from the special election aren’t likely to be put in place before June 2.

Ballots in that election have already been delivered to and returned by voters, and local elections boards can begin tallying results next week, with vote tallies embargoed until 8 p.m. on June 2.

Curing ballots

In one change from the special election, Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Charlson said the state board has put together guidance for local boards that would allow them to give voters the opportunity to “cure” a ballot if it is not signed. If local boards receive returned ballots without signatures, they will reach out to the voter and provide them with a timeframe to come in and sign an oath, Charlson said.

Maryland does not have a process requiring signature verification, so ballots will not be questioned on that basis.

Precinct-level election results

Elections officials were pressed multiple times to justify not providing precinct-level election results for the June 2 election.

Lawmakers and advocates say precinct-level election results make it easier to detect fraud, abuse or errors, and provide insight to the electorate on a micro-scale.

Elections officials said last month that precinct-level results weren’t possible for the June election because of the way ballots were programmed into a database in early February, before the vote-by-mail election was declared by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

Though results won’t be tallied by precinct, the state is able to monitor voter turnout at that level, which can be used to monitor unusual voting activity, Charlson said.

Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City) pushed back, noting that the addresses for all voters returning ballots is known and could be sorted, even if it would take more time or resources.

“Let’s talk this through,” Washington prodded. “…A lot of us feel it’s very important to really track what is happening in this grand experiment and that we not just report out who won without really understanding it.”

Pinsky asked the elections officials to quantify how much extra time or resources would be needed to provide precinct-level results in the June 2 race.

Charlson said it’s a calculation the office would have to take time to make.

She promised lawmakers that precinct-level results will be available in November, no matter how that election takes place.

The state board has asked Hogan to make a decision on whether a mail-in election is necessary for November by mid-June, which would give officials more time to make adjustments lawmakers seek.

Canvassing procedures

Lawmakers also expressed concern on Wednesday with the public canvassing procedures as ballots are counted. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the process that is normally open to the public is instead being livestreamed on individual county websites.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), said there was a dramatic difference in quality and detail available in the video canvasses among the three 7th District boards, and that “none of them allowed an observer to really monitor what’s going on.” Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City) said some of the cameras were so far from canvassers that observers were only able to “see a person basically shuffling paper.”

Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone and Charlson said the process will be much the same for the June elections, based on the quick turnaround time and differences in county workspaces and technology infrastructures.

The state could draft more specific requirements for counties to follow if the November canvasses need to be livestreamed, Lamone said.

The state board has also authorized other changes to the traditional canvassing process, including changing procedures to allow one election judge ― as opposed to the traditional bipartisan pair ― to decide if a ballot is accepted.

Absentee ballots

In the 7th District, a number of voters who requested absentee ballots before the state shifted to a vote-by-mail model did not initially receive ballots under the new model. That’s because the state board forgot to process those absentee requests after the shift, Lamone said.

“We got them out as soon as we discovered the mistake. …But we need to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Del. Eric Ebersole (D-Howard and Baltimore County) was one of the voters who didn’t receive a pre-requested absentee ballot. His mail-in ballot for the 7th District race arrived on election day, but he had already cast a replacement.

On Wednesday, Ebersole posed a question to officials, worried he might be left out again after everyone else in his house received ballots for the presidential primary and he had not.

Lamone assured him that all ballots have been ordered and printed, but don’t necessarily arrive from a Minnesota mailing house to homes at the same time.

Voters in Montgomery County, the state’s largest jurisdiction, should begin to see ballots arrive this week, she said.

All eligible active voters in the state will automatically receive mailed ballots.

Voters can check their registration status online: https://voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/VoterSearch

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