In some of Maryland’s most anticipated elections this year, one outcome is more likely than any other: Voters will have to wait to know the winners.

In Maryland’s largest precincts, results likely won’t be known for days, or even weeks, after Tuesday’s primary.

Nearly half a million mail-in ballots have gone out to Marylanders ahead of primary day — an enormous volume compared to any election prior to two years ago, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an exclusively mail-in primary. The sheer volume of vote-by-mail requests and the timing of a gubernatorial contest in the doldrums of mid-July have combined for a “totally unprecedented” election that could lean heavily on the mail-in tally, former Maryland Secretary of State John Willis said.

“The challenge for the local election board is, how can they process and count them in a timely manner?” said Willis, who is also an executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs. “The election results are going to be delayed. They’re not going to be announced on July 19th.”

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That’s partly because officials this year don’t have the advantage of processing mail-in ballots early. In 2020, Maryland adapted its rules under the pandemic-related state of emergency to allow local election boards to prepare ballots for counting prior to Election Day.

Maryland is the only state in the country that bars election officials from processing ballots before polls close, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, requiring them to hold off until 10 a.m. two days later, in this case Thursday, July 21. A second canvass for later-arriving ballots won’t be held until 10 days out from Election Day, on July 29.

It’s a delay that could have been mitigated, if not avoided, some advocates noted. Earlier this year lawmakers in Annapolis passed a bill that would have allowed canvassers to begin processing mail-in ballots eight days ahead of primary day and to begin counting absentee totals before the close of polls.

But Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed House Bill 862. The second-term Republican praised the bill’s early canvassing provision in his veto letter, saying it would allow “hard working election officials to get a much needed head start.” But the bill lacked a particular signature verification provision, the governor said, “and even the appearance of impropriety or the opportunity for fraud can be enough to undermine citizens’ confidence in their electoral system.”

A recipe for “chaos and confusion”

As of Saturday, more than 177,000 Maryland mail-in ballots had been returned. That accounts for more than a third of the mail-in ballots sent out this year and far outpaces the total of approximately 42,792 requested in the gubernatorial primary of four years ago.

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State and local election officials said this heavy share of mail-in ballots almost guarantees that Maryland will be left hanging on election night.

“That’ll be awkward and unusual for people. But it’s not a problem,” said Willis, who stressed that waiting is just part of the process this year.

But others pointed to the conspiracy theories spun by former President Donald Trump after the 2020 election, and warned that a prolonged period of limbo after Election Day could leave an opening for ill-intentioned candidates to sew confusion.

“It would be very easy for someone to come in and use this delay to their benefit,” said Montgomery County Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Democrat.

Wilkins, who chairs the House of Delegates subcommittee on election law, was a close collaborator on House Bill 862, helping to workshop it over nearly two years before it’s arrival on Hogan’s desk. She said the second-term Republican never gave any indication to advocates or elections officials working on the bill that he had issues with it, and dismissed his signature verification concern as a “random red herring.”

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“It was really unfortunate for the voters of Maryland that he would create such chaos and confusion around the circumstances of the election,” Wilkins said. The inability to adequately prepare for this year’s surge in mail-in ballots “puts the burden on our hardworking elections officials who are going to be spending days and days and days under pressure to count ballots,” she said.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a statement that the governor “is a strong supporter of early canvassing,” noting that it was it was under his authorization that the elections officials were able to begin the process early during the state of emergency.

Had the governor been sent “a clean early canvassing bill,” he would have signed it, Ricci said. “Unfortunately, the legislature abandoned this successful approach for 2022, inserting a poison pill” to allow for ballots with missing or mismatched signatures to be fixed without a signature verification process — even allowing voters to email or text a photo of their signature to election officials. Ricci added that lawmakers rejected an amendment to include an audit process of these signatures.

Among the leading contenders for the gubernatorial nomination in Hogan’s party is Republican candidate Dan Cox, a champion of Trump who has repeated his baseless claims that the 2020 election was “stolen.” The Frederick County delegate launched his campaign for governor with a call for a “forensic audit” of the 2020 results and has drawn Trump’s endorsement in a tight Republican primary against Kelly Schulz, who has run a campaign in Hogan’s mold.

Cox did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Other gubernatorial candidates preached patience following Election Day.

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Schulz, the former secretary of the Maryland Department of Commerce, told reporters at a West Baltimore campaign event last week that her goal is to have the GOP nomination in hand on primary night, without having to depend on the tabulation of mail-in ballots to secure her win.

Still, she urged everyone “to just have a little bit of patience.”

The Republican primary will likely lean far less on mail-in ballots that the Democratic contest. Of the approximately 506,000 mail-in ballots requested in Maryland, close to three-quarters were sent to registered Democrats.

Former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez is locked in a tight contest for his party’s nominations in a nine-person field that features two other front-runners, author and entrepreneur Wes Moore and state Comptroller Peter Franchot. “Voters are going to be frustrated when they realize that they won’t have an outcome before going to bed on election night,” he said.

“What is frustrating here is that the vote-counting process could have been hastened and shortened significantly but for the Hogan veto of this bill,” he said. “I think he will grow to very much regret this decision because this one’s squarely on him.”

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Flood of mail-in ballots

In statewide races like those for governor, comptroller and attorney general, as well as some congressional and county executive contests, it’s likely that the number of votes left to be counted on election night is greater than the margin between the candidates, Willis said — circumstances that could shift the balance of some races days after polls close, as the mail-in tally adds up.

State Board of Elections Deputy Administrator Nikki Charlson said elections officials in the state have been preparing for this year’s high volume of mail-in ballots for months, so the flood of requests that came in over recent weeks wasn’t a surprise.

Even so, most jurisdictions won’t finish counting mail-in ballots until at least July 29, the date when they are required to hold a second canvass of mail-in ballots. Some of the state’s larger jurisdictions, where mail-in volumes are highest, often need even more time to finish counting.

That means some races may not be decided until early August.

“Calling it Election Day gives a misimpression,” Charslon said. “It really is election season or election month.”

Ruie Lavoie, director of the board of elections for Baltimore County, said it’s hard to predict how long it will take to reach conclusions in most races.

During the last gubernatorial contest in 2018, Baltimore County sent out just over 5,000 mail-in ballots, compared to approximately 72,000 sent to county residents this year. Despite that rise in volume, Lavoie said she hopes to be finished by July 29.

Four years ago, the mail-in ballot count was partially responsible for a long and dramatic delay in the results of the Democratic primary for Baltimore County executive. In that race, Johnny Olszewski Jr. held a 326-vote lead over rival Jim Brochin after votes were counted on primary day. Olszewski’s lead shrank to 42 votes after the first canvass of mail-in ballots, and then nine following the tally of provisional ballots. After a recount, Olszewski was eventually crowned winner by just 17 votes — 18 days after polls had closed.

Baltimore City has provided 50,000 mail-in ballots for this year’s primary, while Montgomery County saw by far the largest demand, supplying almost 115,000. Armstead Jones, the Board of Elections director for Baltimore City, said clear outcomes could take “several days,” depending on how tight races are, while it could be “several weeks” before unofficial results are finalized.

The longtime director for Baltimore City’s elections, Jones said there hasn’t been a well-designed plan from the beginning, partly due to the court battle over Maryland’s new district lines, which shortened the timeline that election administrators had to prepare. With no opportunity to start processing mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day, staff will feel the added pressure, he said.

Each ballot has to be separated from two envelopes, examined to make sure it hasn’t been spoiled in any way, and then tallied.

“That’s a lot of looks at a lot of pieces of paper,” Willis said. “There’s no scanner that I’m aware of in the state that can process 80,000 ballots in a day.”

Joanne Antoine, executive director for the Maryland chapter of the voter advocacy group Common Cause, was among those who helped craft the bill vetoed by Hogan. Like Wilkins, she said she was blindsided by his decision.

“You’re not thinking it’s a big deal until you’re here, and it’s August and you’re still waiting,” she said.

Reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this story.

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