House and Senate lawmakers have approved nearly identical bills ahead of elections next year to speed counting of mail ballots and make it easier for voters to correct ballots that weren’t filled out properly.

Senators also approved moving the 2024 primary date to avoid a Jewish holiday.

The bills solve a problem unique to Maryland by requiring county election boards to prepare mail ballots for counting prior to Election Day. Under current law, a local board may not open any mail ballot envelope until after Election Day.

That has caused delayed results as more Maryland voters have chosen to vote by mail since the pandemic began in 2020. Last year, some primary results weren’t decided until weeks after the election.

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If the bills become law, a local election board would be required to begin canvassing absentee ballots — preparing them to be counted — eight business days before the first day of early voting. Boards would not tabulate any ballot totals until Election Day. Jurisdictions with few mail voters could be exempted from the requirement.

“People expect election results on election night,” Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill said, adding that this measure would help fight disinformation and conspiracy theories in addition to expediting the process.

Lawmakers have previously approved the mail ballot changes, but they were vetoed by then-Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

Last year, absentee ballots that required weeks of counting ultimately put challenger Sam Cogen over three-decade incumbent John W. Anderson for the Baltimore sheriff primary election Similarly, the primary race for Montgomery County Executive was so close, it took weeks to certify results. After a recount, a three-vote margin separated the winner and runner-up.

Because of those delayed results, the state Board of Elections filed an emergency petition in circuit court to seek permission for counties to start processing mail ballots prior to the general election.

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Changes may also be coming to the way election boards correct ballots that have not been properly filled out, known as curing.

When you fill out an mail ballot, you are required to sign the envelope next to an oath. The bill would alter current law that requires local election boards to void a ballot if the envelope has not been signed and the voter did not correct it within 10 days of the election.

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Instead, a local election board would be required to review each ballot envelope shortly after it is received to check for signatures. If an omission is found, the board must alert the voter and give them a chance to cure, or correct, their ballot.

The voter can provide — by phone or email — a digital photo of their signature. Then, the voter can use text message, email, a mailed paper form, an anonymous online portal, or visit the board in person to correct their ballot.

If an election board receives more than one ballot from a voter, they will be required to count the first ballot and reject the second. As the law exists now, a board must accept the newest ballot when it receives two from the same person.

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The Senate also approved one amendment to the bill — moving the 2024 primary date to May 14. The change, proposed by Baltimore County Democratic Sen. Shelly Hettleman, would avoid a conflict with Passover on the original date. The House has a separate bill moving the primary date.

Two other amendments offered by Republican Minority Whip Sen. Justin Ready of Frederick and Carroll Counties would have required additional means of identification for voters using absentee ballots. Both were rejected. Similar amendments were rejected from the House version.

“I think that both parties have an interest in ensuring that we don’t have a system that makes it easy to cheat our election system,” Rep. Nicholaus Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican said during House debate last week, arguing for the adoption of his amendment that would require signature verification, or matching ballot signatures to ones on file in order to accept a ballot.

Sponsor Del. Jessica Feldmark, a Democrat from Howard County argued that mail-in ballots have been particularly important for older voters and those with disabilities. “Those are also two groups who are most disproportionately impacted and disenfranchised by signature verification requirements,” she said.

Del. Aaron Kaufman, a Democrat from Montgomery County, agreed with Feldmark that signature verification would disenfranchise voters, particularly those with disabilities.

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Kaufman, who has cerebral palsy, said he knows this on a personal level: “I am one of those disabled voters the gentlelady from Howard County is talking about, and as a result of my disability, my handwriting is illegible. And due to my fatigue and ongoing fine motor issues, on any given day my signature looks different.”

The Senate bill now heads to the House of Delegates. The House bill was referred to a Senate committee on Monday.