A Maryland appeals court ruled that the confidential counting of mail ballots can start as soon as Saturday as a challenge to the ballot-counting calendar is considered.

In a brief order issued Thursday, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals denied a request from Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox to put the counting on hold while he challenges a lower court ruling that allowed the counting in the first place.

It’s the latest step in a legally complicated debate over when millions of ballots will be counted in the fall general election, and it represents a loss for Cox.

The Cox campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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The Maryland State Board of Elections sought and won permission from a lower court judge to begin processing and tabulating vote-by-mail ballots as early as Saturday. Elections officials have said few if any counties will actually start the tally that soon. Ballots are just now being mailed out to voters who have requested them.

But elections officials want the flexibility to start handling the mail ballots ahead of the general election on Nov. 8. They’re expecting a crush of mail ballots to be returned through the postal service or at ballot drop boxes, and they’ve argued that following the typical schedule of counting mail ballots after Election Day will lead to delays in determining winners and certifying results.

Maryland is the only state in the nation to forbid election officials from preparing and counting mail ballots until two days after Election Day. Lawmakers attempted to change the law this year, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill because he objected to other provisions.

That meant that the summer primary elections had to be conducted following the schedule set out in Maryland’s law, with the counting of mail ballots after Election Day. With a third of voters using mail ballots, in some cases it took several weeks to determine winners.

Not wanting to have a repeat of that prolonged process this fall, the Maryland State Board of Elections asked the courts for emergency permission to count the ballots early in the general election. Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant granted the request, which Cox had opposed and then appealed.

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Elections officials estimate as many as 1 million Marylanders might vote with mail ballots this fall.

Democrats have blasted Cox’s efforts as a means to sow doubt and confusion in the electoral process and to get free publicity.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day on Thursday, Maryland Democratic Party Chair Yvette Lewis said Cox is following former President Donald Trump’s “playbook of deny and delay.”

“There was absolutely no reason why we were the only state to hold mail-in ballot counting for after the election,” Lewis said. “Dan Cox’s decision to file an appeal against the court’s ruling regarding the counting of mail-in ballots isn’t a surprise by any means.”

The next step in the legal case over the mail ballots is for the Court of Special Appeals to hear arguments from both sides. That has not yet been scheduled.

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Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County.

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