Maryland elections officials plan to go to court to seek permission to confidentially count mailed ballots as they arrive ahead of the fall general election.

The Maryland State Board of Elections, meeting via video on Monday, voted unanimously to file the emergency request in court. The board will have to prove that counting mailed ballots ahead of time is in the best interest of the voting public and will maintain the integrity of the elections.

It’s not clear when the petition will be filed; elections officials said they would do it in time for the court to consider the request well in advance of the fall general election.

The vote came after board members officially certified the results of this summer’s primary elections. Voting ended with traditional election day voting on July 19, but it took several days — and in some cases, weeks — before winners were apparent in many contests, as mail-in ballots were counted.

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“If the timing is the same as the primary election, it could be until Christmas or New Year’s that we get results from the election,” said board member Justin Williams.

He noted that a delay in knowing who won and certifying results could affect the seating of new elected officials.

At the county level, many officials are sworn into office in December; the governor and members of the General Assembly are sworn into office in January.

Board member Severn Miller said starting to count mailed ballots ahead of time — while not releasing the results until voting is complete — will help put elections officials “ahead of the curve.”

In 2020, when elections were contested largely by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, elections officials tallied most mailed ballots ahead of time and released those results after polling locations closed on election day. This was allowed under the state of emergency that was in place at the time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The option of mailing ballots in and counting them early proved popular, and state lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year to make the process permanent, now that the coronavirus state of emergency has expired. But Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, objecting to its lack of a certain signature verification provision.

That left local elections officials stuck with the pre-pandemic calendar, which is enshrined in state law, of starting to count mailed ballots two days after election day. About 35% of primary election voters this summer voted with mailed ballots, which they returned either through the mail or ballot dropboxes.

Maryland is the only state in the country that has a law in place barring election officials from processing ballots before polls close, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hogan, a Republican, supports the board’s decision to seek permission to count ballots early, according to his spokesman, Mike Ricci.

“The governor strongly supports the board finally taking action to adopt early canvassing — as he did for the 2020 election — and address the General Assembly’s failure to pass a simple bill that would have allowed it to happen,” Ricci said in the statement.

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He continued: “We hope that the court will act swiftly, and that the legislature will act in the future to codify the governor’s successful early canvassing measure.”

The statement did not address the governor’s role in vetoing the bill that would have allowed the early counting.

Even with the post-election day counting of mailed ballots, some contests had clear winners on election night, including the Republican primary for governor, won by Del. Dan Cox. Others took longer, including the Democratic primary for governor, with Wes Moore declaring victory on the Saturday after election day.

In Montgomery County, a crowded Democratic primary for county executive wasn’t certified until this past Saturday, with incumbent Marc Elrich winning by 35 votes over second-place finisher David Blair. A recount is likely.

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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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