7/7/22—A State of Maryland official ballot drop box sits outside the Southeast Anchor Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on the first day of early voting in Maryland’s Primary Election.

As Maryland elections officials seek approval to confidentially count mail ballots early this fall, they’re facing opposition from the Republican candidate for governor.

A judge in Montgomery County will hold a hearing next week on the Maryland State Board of Elections’ emergency request to count the mail ballots as they come in. Republican Dan Cox lodged his opposition to the request in a court filing this week.

Cox made multiple filings in court raising objections to the plan, which is already carried out in every other state in the nation.

Cox’s arguments include that it should be up to the Maryland General Assembly — not the courts — to decide when and how to count ballots. Such a move, Cox argues, is unconstitutional.

“Specifically, the State Board is asking this Court to perform a legislative function in clear violation of more than 240 years of precedent in this State,” Cox and his lawyers wrote in a filing.

In a press release, Cox went further, saying counting the mail ballots early “further undermines trust in the outcome of elections.”

Cox has made election integrity one of his key issues in recent years, traveling to Pennsylvania in 2020 to assist then-President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election that he lost.

Maryland counted mail ballots as they came in during the elections in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, which was allowed under Gov. Larry Hogan’s pandemic state of emergency.

After the state of emergency expired, state lawmakers passed a bill that would have made the early counting a permanent feature of elections. While Hogan supported early counting, he objected to other portions of the bill and vetoed it.

That left the courts as the only option for the Maryland State Board of Elections to get permission to count mail ballots as they come in.

Voting by mail and ballot drop box has swiftly become extremely popular in Maryland. Without permission to count early, it can take days or weeks to tally mailed ballots after election day, leaving voters and candidates uncertain of outcomes.

In the July primary elections, more than 33% of voters cast their ballots by mail, according to state data. Before the pandemic, typically only a single-digit percentage of Marylanders voted by mail.

That high volume of mailed ballots, combined with little time to count them, amounts to an emergency circumstance that needs to be addressed, lawyers for the Maryland State Board of Elections wrote in a court filing this week.

Elections officials wrote that they aren’t seeking to usurp state lawmakers’ power — as Cox has alleged — because they are seeking only a short-term fix until lawmakers can address the issue permanently.

Democrats swiftly condemned Cox’s efforts as disingenuous.

“In the last election, Donald Trump spent months planting the seeds for his baseless claims of election fraud, aided by cynical Republican legislators like Dan Cox,” said Ernest Bailey, a spokesperson for the Maryland Democratic Party.

“Now Cox, rather than trying to win by appealing to Maryland voters, is seeking to hold a smooth election process hostage to his conspiratorial nonsense. His obstruction of this common-sense measure with bipartisan support is further evidence of his lack of fitness to lead this state,” he said.

Cox’s Democratic opponent, Wes Moore, told The Baltimore Banner he has no issue with counting mail ballots early. He noted that even Hogan supports the concept of the early tally of mail ballots.

“This is just a continuation of my opponent throwing conspiracy theories and doubts into the election cycle,” Moore said. “He continues to get talking points from Mar-a-Lago.”

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James A. Bonifant has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Tuesday, with a decision expected next Friday.

pamela.wood@thebaltimorebanner.com