Maryland precinct vote data not available in real-time as counties continue to count mail votes

Published on: July 27, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

A ballot counter runs mailed-in ballots through a machine and gathers them if they get stuck.

Maryland was unable to release real-time precinct voting data during the primary because the system to distribute election results was put into place “at the very last minute,” according to state election officials, delaying a key data set that can help researchers verify vote totals.

Precinct-level results are the most granular form of election data commonly available and a necessity for post-election forensic analysis of voter turnout and numbers of votes cast. This data is one important way that jurisdictions show that the election was properly conducted. Without precinct-level results, audits of electronic election data are impossible.

State election officials say full precinct data — including the breakdown of early votes, election day votes and mail votes — is available, but not as the votes are tallied and election officials determine race winners.

“Elections officials are under heightened scrutiny, so it’s really concerning that they didn’t get this right under those circumstances,” said Christopher Mann, associate professor of political science at Skidmore College.

On election night, an updating set of data files on the Maryland State Board of Elections website posted new, precinct-level results as they were counted by elections officials. However, these files stopped updating late Wednesday evening — the day before mail-in ballots started being counted.

Natasha Walker, director of Election Management Systems for the BoE, explained that the updating files were intended for election night only because the county-level boards of elections, which count and report vote totals to the state, use a different upload system for mail-in ballots.

“We didn’t account for that and just don’t have time to change anything right now,” said Walker on Friday, July 21st.

The Banner discovered the issue through close examination of the files the state election board posted on its website, noticing that there were no tallies for mail-in ballots and that the files had stopped updating. After this became apparent, The Banner reached out to the state election board to understand what was happening and they responded quickly.

All evidence points to the 2022 Maryland primaries having been fair and correctly decided, just as the 2020 presidential election and 2016 presidential election were before it. Delaying the release of precinct-level results in no way affects the accuracy of those results.

However, in a June poll conducted by Goucher College Poll in partnership with the Baltimore Banner, 41% of Republicans surveyed said they weren’t confident that this year’s state elections would be conducted fairly and accurately. Errors of this sort affect the ability to audit vote totals as they’re counted, and give people already inclined to doubt election results “evidence” to support their false claims.

“The public should care, election officials should care, because we know there’s this lack of confidence and a creeping in of doubt about competence,” said Mann.

“In a more benign environment, people would go: ‘Oh, it’s just like in my office. We instituted a new technology, and we didn’t get it ready in time. Eh, this happens,’” Mann said. “With the conspiracy theory stuff, it creates the pressure to pull it off.”

Walker said a tremendous amount of work fell on a small agency with few technically inclined employees, and meant the data pipeline was created a week before the election and was managed by a single person on election night. “It’s overwhelming when the results are coming in on election night. There are all these moving pieces. When the files stopped updating, we just had too much going on, so we turned it off,” Walker said.

Walker said the State Board of Elections will be meeting after the primary to “discuss how to handle things in the general” and added, “Hopefully, we can get there.”

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