Maryland election officials announced emergency measures Wednesday afternoon to increase voting access in Baltimore as questions mounted about a state vendor’s late delivery of mail-in ballots to city residents.
Around 5:30 p.m., the Maryland State Board of Elections unanimously approved the creation of two additional in-person polling sites in the city for the June 2 primary, which could effectively decide competitive races for the city’s mayor, council seats and comptroller.
State officials also announced locations on Wednesday where they will deliver an additional 10 ballot dropoff boxes throughout the city by the end of next week.
The state board’s meeting was called Wednesday afternoon as pressure mounted for officials to act on ballot-related issues for the upcoming primary in what is Maryland’s first foray into statewide mail-in voting.
Elections officials announced on Sunday that ballots to city residents had not been shipped on time and could arrive as late as this coming Saturday.
Maryland’s Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone said on Wednesday that the state’s vendor, SeaChange Print Innovations, based in Minnesota, had failed to deliver ballots to the city on schedule and also failed to notify Maryland officials about the delay.
“We will conduct a thorough review of their performance after the election,” Lamone said in a statement on Wednesday. “Despite this delay, ballots are being delivered daily to eligible voter addresses on file in Baltimore and Maryland. We are confident eligible voters will receive their ballots in time to cast their votes in the June 2 primary.”
Lamone said the state was “extremely disappointed” by the delays. Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Charlson said bulk shipments of ballots are being driven overnight from the mailhouse to distribution centers in Maryland. A bulk shipment arrived on Wednesday and the last shipment from the mailhouse will be processed on Thursday, she said.
“We’ve been working daily, multiple times a day, with the United States Postal Service to ensure the prompt and secure delivery of these ballots and have been just extraordinarily impressed with their level of commitment and sophistication to assist us with this effort,” Charlson said during the meeting.
The state board also announced Wednesday that it will launch a full review of SeaChange’s performance immediately after the June 2 election.
The state board did little to discuss issues with the mailed ballots during an open meeting that lasted just more than 10 minutes.
Board members discussed the placement of the ballot drop boxes and confirmed that all of them would be under 24-hour surveillance. There will be at least one drop box in each of the city’s 14 councilmanic districts.
Officials did not provide additional detail about an hour-long closed discussion of “potential and pending litigation” related to the June 2 election.
Representatives from SeaChange could not be immediately reached for comment late Wednesday.
While officials are still encouraging the widespread adoption of voting by mail on June 2 to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus, Maryland’s top legislators requested the additional in-person voting sites on Tuesday to limit crowds if a large number of Baltimoreans are forced to vote in person on election day.
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) wrote a letter to the board on Tuesday, outlining concerns including that the late delivery of ballots could disenfranchise minority voters.
“Significant research shows minority voters are less likely to vote by mail, and that transient and low income populations are less likely to participate or even receive ballots ― as we see here,” Jones and Ferguson wrote. “As we transition to a primarily mail-in ballot election, there must be a comprehensive plan in place to direct resources to these communities and target voters individually to communicate alternatives to still vote if unable to cast a ballot by mail.”
At the Board of Public Works meeting on Wednesday morning, Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) lamented the “seeming inability of our State Board of Elections to effectively get ballots into the hands of voters, particularly in Baltimore City.”
He noted that more than 20,300 ― almost 9% of the mail-in ballots ― addressed to voters in the city of Baltimore during April’s 7th congressional district special election were returned as undeliverable, and that voters who’d proactively requested an absentee ballot before the shift to a mail-in election were overlooked in the mailing process, receiving their ballots very late, including on, or possibly after, the election day.
“It’s something we all should be concerned about particularly when you think back to the 2018 primary in Baltimore County, that was decided by 17 votes,” Rutherford said.
The Hogan administration, Rutherford said, had been getting calls from “various sources, individuals, citizens, and even some elected officials, saying that the governor should fire the leadership over at the State Board of Elections.”
“I just want to say it’s very disappointing. It’s to the point of being outrageous with regard to what’s going on over at the State Board of Elections, and we will see what takes place in two weeks,” Rutherford said.
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) said she agreed that issues with the mailed ballots needed to be addressed.
“We are in a very different world now and if we are going to be dependent on mailed ballots in November … this has just got to change,” Kopp said. “People have to have faith in the electoral system or we are in very dangerous territory.”
Kopp also urged the elections office to reach out to top state officials if they need more support or assistance.
Reports on the State Board of Elections website indicated late Wednesday that 330,415 ballots had been sent to voters in the city of Baltimore, where there are 336,561 eligible active voters. Charlson said Wednesday evening that 260,000 of the sent ballots had been delivered to city voters.
If voters do not receive their ballots by Saturday, they should request a replacement ballot, officials said.