Canvassing of hundreds of thousands of ballots from Marylanders who opted to vote by mail this primary season is set to begin Thursday morning — two days after the close of polls and with several high-profile races still in the balance.
Maryland law bars election officials from processing these mail-in ballots until 10:00 a.m. the Thursday after polls close, a delay that has prolonged the wait for clear winners in some of the state’s most anticipated races, as the popularity of vote-by-mail surged this year.
And in some populous parts of the state, this first canvass of mail-in ballots is likely to take up part of the weekend and possibly stretch into the next week.
Armstead Jones, the Board of Elections director for Baltimore City, said Wednesday that the city’s counting will “more than likely” last into next week, though he declined to estimate how long the first round of mail-in ballot canvassing will take. Election workers will return to the Baltimore City Board of Elections warehouse in the western part of town each day to keep tallying. The team will count on Saturday but likely take Sunday off, Jones said.
“It’s not a fast process, but it depends on how many ballots you have,” Jones said.
Meanwhile, Baltimore County Board of Elections Director Ruie LaVoie said her team plans to begin “aggressively” processing ballots at 10 a.m. Thursday morning, working long days until the process is complete. For each subsequent day of canvassing after Thursday, a team of 22 canvassers will begin work at 8 a.m. and go until between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. at night, counting on both Saturday and Sunday.
”We are going to go until as long as we can,” LaVoie said. It’s possible the first canvass in the county will stretch into next week LaVoie said. More than 35,000 ballots had been returned to the county as of Tuesday, and LaVoie estimated that her team could process about 6,000 ballots a day.
Nearly half a million mail-in ballots were sent out to Maryland voters this year, a larger volume than in any race prior to the 2020 primaries, when the onset of the pandemic prompted an exclusively vote-by-mail election. Just over 213,000 of those ballots had been returned as of Tuesday, though that number is expected to climb as votes postmarked on election day stream in.
Almost 50,000 mail-in ballots went out to voters in Baltimore City this primary season, while more than 70,000 were sent to voters in Baltimore County. Montgomery County saw by far the largest demand for mail-in ballots, providing more than 115,000. It’s not clear how many mail-in votes will factor into this year’s primary, since ballots count as long as they were submitted by drop box or were postmarked by Tuesday evening.
While some premier races, like the Republican primary for governor, were settled Tuesday night without the need to factor in mail-in ballots, others, like the Democratic race for governor and the Baltimore state’s attorney’s race, remain undecided.
Local boards of elections will count provisional ballots on July 27 and hold a second canvass for late-arriving mail-in ballots 10 days after Election Day, on July 29.
Though the first canvass has historically included a larger volume of mail-in ballots, Jones and LaVoie both noted protocol requiring jurisdictions to hold back a share of the first canvass for the next round will shift some of the workload to the second canvass this year.
Misplaced flash drives delay results in Baltimore City
Baltimore City was the lone jurisdiction in the state whose election day in-person voting returns remained incomplete Wednesday evening, the result of several misplaced flash drives containing the results from a dozen precincts.
Up until almost 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, results from 12 of the city’s 296 precincts showed blanks, though Jones said late in the day that the flash drives for 11 of the precincts had been found. He said officials were heading to the home of an election judge from the one remaining precinct in an attempt to track down the last USB.
By 8:00 p.m. just two precincts were outstanding in Baltimore City.
Jones said earlier in the day that the memory sticks weren’t “missing,” and added that no votes would be lost even if the items didn’t turn up. Ballot scanners still contain the vote totals from the unreported precincts and could be re-downloaded to new flash drives if necessary.
The flash drives were supposed to be delivered from polling places to the Board of Elections’ downtown headquarters, but they didn’t arrive Tuesday night. The Board of Elections became aware of the issue at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning and set to work trying to retrieve the flash drives.
Jones called the issue “nothing unusual” and said the recovered flash drives were found in a variety of places, like still inserted in ballot scanners.