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Commentary Election 2022

Commentary: Why does it take Montgomery County longer to process mail and provisional ballots?

Mail ballots received by the Montgomery County Board of Elections during the 2022 primary are sorted during a ballot canvass. Montgomery County Board of Elections photo.

By Nahid Khozeimeh and David Naimon

The writers are president and secretary, respectively, of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. The county’s ballot canvassing is expected to resume Friday.

A lot of Montgomery County and Maryland political eyes are on Montgomery County as we are now the only Maryland local jurisdiction continuing to process mail-in and provisional ballots, and the number one question we continue to receive is, “What’s taking you so long?”  This is not new — we’ve almost always been the last county to complete the canvass — but there understandably has been a lot more interest this year, with the large number of mail-in ballots and a few close races. Here are some of the reasons:

1. Greatest number of voters and mail-in ballots. Montgomery County, which has 670,000 eligible voters (more than 30% more than any other jurisdiction) received almost 75,000 mail-in ballots to process. That’s 50% more mail-in ballots than the next closest jurisdiction (Baltimore County, with almost 50,000 ballots), and more than we’ve ever had outside of 2020.

2. Greatest number of “web-delivered” mail-in ballots. “Web-delivered” ballots, which should be known as “Web-Delivered, Self-Printed and Mailed, Hand-Duplicated Ballots” slow down the canvassing process considerably. In addition to the extra work for voters to print the ballot, find and address the envelope to us, and provide postage, we need to duplicate the 8 1/2 x 11 paper ballots we receive onto ballot paper. Most of them are hand-duplicated by bipartisan teams, and some bipartisan teams have been using the ballot marking device. Either way, it takes more than twice as long for us to process these ballots. Montgomery County had a greater percentage of web-delivery ballot requests (16% of mail-in ballot requests) than any other jurisdiction in Maryland. We’ve canvassed about 7,000 web-delivered ballots so far.

3. Among greatest number of provisional ballots. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have more than 8,000 provisional ballot applications each, many of which came from voters who requested mail-in ballots and either did not receive them or did not know if their voted mail-in ballot had been received before deciding to vote in person. Voters who lost, damaged, or made a mistake on their mail-in ballots also may vote a provisional ballot. We’re not sure why Montgomery and Prince George’s County have more provisional ballots applications than other jurisdictions, but we’ve heard about a lot of U.S. Postal Service issues, and plan to look into whether they affected Montgomery and Prince George’s counties differently than others. In any event, each provisional ballot requires staff research on the voter’s eligibility, and that takes time.

4. Available space and staff for the canvass during the summer months. Due to increased storage needs, our board office no longer has enough space to host a canvass or a recount (the 2018 canvass sessions and recounts were at our office). We originally planned to use a high school gymnasium, but because we knew we’d still be canvassing after August 1 (when high school fall sports practices begin), that option was unavailable and we were very fortunate that Montgomery College-Germantown allowed us to use a great space in its Bioscience Education Center. Of course, we always only have the room that the space provides, and this year (like most workplaces) summer vacation season and COVID affected staffing as well. We have had roughly 25 two-person bipartisan canvass teams working 8 hours a day, 5-6 days per week, but we might have been able to squeeze in some more in a larger space.

5. The process of preparing ballots for scanning (counting) and determining voter intent. We could speed up the process if we simply checked the ballot envelopes for timeliness and a signed oath and put them through the scanner. If we did so, the scanner would declare overvotes that really are votes where the voter crossed out one choice and picked another. (If the voter had voted in person, they could have requested another ballot. Mail-in voters can do that too, but many don’t bother to do so, since it’s much harder and takes more time.) Our bipartisan canvass teams check each ballot for any ambiguities that require Board members to determine voter intent. For example, if a voter filled in the circle for candidate A, then crossed it out with an X and filled in the circle for a candidate B, the scanner would simply read two markings and count it as an overvote, which loses that voter’s vote. The Board can determine if it was a vote for candidate B and not candidate A, and the ballot can be hand-duplicated without the mistaken mark and counted to reflect the voter’s intent.

6. Sorting ballots by precinct before counting them. This is time-consuming but also useful both to maintain accuracy and to be better prepared for possible recounts. If we didn’t do this sorting and had a recount that is less than county-wide, we might have to find particular ballots among all of our ballots before starting a recount — not quite finding a needle in the haystack, but pretty close.

All of the members of our Board understand the desire to get the results as soon as possible, and we’re doing what we can to keep things moving, and welcome suggestions for improvements. Our task in Montgomery County is larger than the tasks in other jurisdictions, and we also know that accuracy, not speed, comes first.