Once the ballots are cast in Tuesday’s primary elections in Maryland, voters may have to sit tight for a bit to learn who the likely winners are.

With voters increasingly preferring to cast ballots by mail, officials have continued to tweak the ballot-counting process to get more results on election night. But there will be thousands of votes to count after Tuesday — so we may not know who all the winners are right away, especially in close contests.

Maryland has a number of competitive races, particularly among Democrats. Voters are picking their party’s nominees for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and, in Baltimore, for mayor, City Council president and City Council members.

Here’s key information about the ballot-counting process.

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What happens when polls close Tuesday?

The polls close once the last person in line at 8 p.m. casts their ballot.

As soon as that happens, elections officials in each jurisdiction — Baltimore and each county — can release results from the eight days of early, in-person voting that was held.

They also will tabulate some of the mailed ballots that were received prior to election day.

In Baltimore, for example, a total of 51,466 ballots were sent out by mail, according to state records.

Of those, 12,470 had been received back in time for elections workers to open them, check for voter signatures and verify they were cast properly. The ballots were then scanned by a machine and readied for tabulation.

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The tabulation, or counting, of those votes will happen on election night.

Meanwhile, results from election day in-person voting will trickle in as workers close up shop at the polls and get the information to the elections offices.

So, all told, on election night, voters will see results from in-person early voting, in-person election day voting and a portion of the mail ballots.

Will we know who the winners are on election night?

We might be able to discern who the winners will be, or we might not. It depends on how close the races are and how many mail and provisional ballots are left to be counted.

In Baltimore, for example, only 24% of the mail-in ballots that were sent out will be tabulated on election night. So, if races are close and there are tens of thousands of ballots still to be counted, it might not be easy to tell who the likely winner is.

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On the other hand, if there are lopsided results coming in from early voting, election day voting and those early-arriving mail ballots, candidates may declare victory or concede defeat.

What happens after election day?

Elections workers will be back at it Thursday. That’s when they’ll take up the task of processing and counting the remaining mail ballots.

Mail ballots are valid as long as they are postmarked or placed in a drop box by election day. Because the Postal Service can take a while, elections officials — by law — must wait until 10 days after the election for mail ballots to trickle in.

There also is a day set aside after the election for officials to tackle provisional ballots.

Provisional ballots are those cast in person by voters who may have an issue — for example, they may have gone to the wrong polling location or tried to vote in person after being sent a ballot in the mail. Elections workers must examine each ballot to determine if it is fully valid or if only part of it or none of it can be counted.

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When is everything final?

All valid ballots will be counted by May 24. After that, they’ll go through a process to be legally certified.

Is every vote counted?

Even if the winners are apparent, elections officials count every vote that is properly cast.

“There’s that fallacy out there that if it’s not a close race we don’t count them. We count every ballot,” said Abigail Goldman, acting elections director for Baltimore. “We count everything. Every vote is sacred to us.”

Why has this changed so much?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, not many people voted by mail, which used to be called absentee ballots. By the end of election night, more than 90% of ballots would be counted, so the media and candidates often predicted winners.

In the 2018 general election, for example, just 5% of voters used mail-in ballots, with 64% voting on election day, 29% voting during early voting and 2% casting provisional ballots.

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But, when the pandemic swept through, temporary changes were made, including a primary election in 2020 that was conducted almost entirely by mail, with ballots sent to all eligible voters.

Even after pandemic restrictions were lifted, a significant number of voters stuck with voting by mail.

In the 2022 general election, nearly 27% of ballots were cast through the mail. (That year, 52% voted on election day, 19% voted during early voting and 3% cast provisional ballots.)

Maryland’s law, at the time, did not allow for any mail ballots to be counted until two days after election day. In 2020, an emergency order allowed the earlier counting of mail ballots, and in 2022, elections officials went to court for permission to start processing mail ballots early.

Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the delay became a problem once mail ballots became so popular. She sponsored a permanent change in the law to require elections officials to start processing mail ballots as they come in ahead of election day.

“Waiting to start canvassing until after election day was feeding into the conspiracy theories of what’s happening,” she said. Voters were used to seeing results on Tuesday night after voting, and they were confused by the longer wait for results.

How can I make the process smoother?

If you’re voting in person on Tuesday, do your homework ahead of time so that you can cast your ballot efficiently — and hopefully reduce the possibility of lines, Goldman said.

“A prepared voter is an important voter,” she said. “You get through the line faster, and everything moves smoothly.”

If you have a mail ballot sitting at your home, fill it out and send it in — either through the mail or in a designated ballot drop box.

Do not set your mail ballot aside and try to vote in person, advised Jared DeMarinis, the state elections administrator. You’ll be required to fill out a provisional ballot, which is time-consuming because elections officials have to make sure you didn’t vote twice, and your vote won’t be counted until well after election day.

And don’t mix up the sample ballot and your mail ballot and send in your sample ballot. That’s happened a few times already this year, DeMarinis said.

DeMarinis has another request for voters. If you see or hear questionable information about when, where or how to vote, report it to elections officials.

There’s a portal on the Maryland State Board of Elections website to report misinformation about the voting process.

“If you see it, please put it in the portal so we can correct the record,” DeMarinis said.

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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