A judge has ruled that, starting as early as Oct. 1, elections officials can tabulate ballots as they come in via mail and drop box for this fall’s general election.

How will this work with counting mail ballots?

Elections officials have already started mailing out ballots to military voters and overseas voters who have requested them. Next week, they’ll start sending out mail ballots domestically.

Starting Oct. 1, local elections boards will be allowed to open and tabulate those ballots as they’re returned by mail or drop box. Some counties may start the tabulation on Oct. 1, while others might start the tabulation later.

All of the results will be kept confidential and won’t be released until after the polls close on Election Day, which is Nov. 8 this year.

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Elections officials did this in the 2020 elections during the height of the pandemic without incident, so they have a blueprint for how to set up and staff the early counting.

Why do elections officials need to count mail ballots early?

Voting by mail has surged in popularity, thanks largely to the coronavirus pandemic.

It wasn’t long ago that fewer than 10% of voters voted with mail ballots, which used to be called absentee ballots. It didn’t take long for elections officials to tally those up after Election Day.

Then in 2020, Maryland and other states conducted elections largely by mail, due to health and safety concerns from the coronavirus. In those elections, the mail ballots were counted early without incident.

It turned out that voters liked voting by mail and continued to do so in record numbers in 2022, even after vaccinations became available and most pandemic restrictions were lifted.

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In Maryland’s primary elections this summer, hundreds of thousands of voters — more than one-third of those who voted — did so with mailed ballots. But elections officials had to follow the old, pre-pandemic schedule of counting mail ballots after election day, and that meant it took weeks to find out winners in some races.

Elections officials don’t want a repeat of that situation, so they asked a judge for emergency permission to count ballots as they come in for the general election.

More than 1 million Marylanders are expected to vote with mail ballots this fall.

What would have been some of the potential problems caused by counting mail ballots after the election?

It’s possible that if all ballots were counted after Election Day the process could have run up against laws that require winning candidates to be sworn into office at a certain time.

Many county charters require county executives and county council members to be sworn into office on the first Monday of December after the election.

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It’s possible that the outgoing executives and council members would have had to hold onto their seats until the election results were finalized — though some counties offer wiggle room. Baltimore County’s charter, for example, states the term of office starts “on the first Monday in December following their election, or as soon thereafter as practicable.”

Many local school boards have similar legal deadlines for swearing in members and electing their leadership. However, Maryland statutes don’t make clear what happens if the deadlines aren’t met.

Members of Congress are scheduled to be sworn in on Jan. 3, members of the Maryland General Assembly on Jan. 11 and the governor on Jan. 18.

There’s also the general concern that drawn-out elections cause doubt and frustration among voters about the process.

How do I vote by mail?

If you’re registered to vote, you can request to have a ballot delivered to you by mail or fax (yes, some people still use faxes) until Nov. 1. You can request a ballot be emailed to you up until Nov. 4.

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The request can be made online if you have a Maryland driver’s license or identification card. You also can go to your local elections board and fill out a paper form.

Voters now have the option of requesting a mail ballot just for this election, or requesting to be added to a permanent vote-by-mail list. Voters on the permanent vote-by-mail list will automatically be sent a mail ballot and they don’t have to request it each time.

You do not need to give a reason for requesting a mail ballot — any voter can vote by mail.

However you receive your ballot, you can return it through the mail or using drop boxes that will be placed at various locations. The deadline to get your ballot in is 8 p.m. on Election Day, which is Nov. 8 this year.

You can verify your voter registration records and track the status of your ballot online.

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Who is opposed to early tabulation of mail ballots?

The only person who lodged a legal objection to counting the mail ballots early was Dan Cox, the Republican nominee for governor. Cox’s lawyers argued that it was unconstitutional for the courts to interfere in elections and that there wasn’t a true emergency affecting the election that needed to be addressed.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant disagreed with Cox’s position and approved the request from the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan did veto a bill that would have changed the law to permanently allow the early counting of mail ballots in all elections going forward.

But Hogan said his veto was about other provisions of the bill that he disagreed with. He supported the concept of early tabulation of mailed ballots and on Friday he said he welcomed the judge’s ruling.

Baltimore Banner reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

pamela.wood@thebaltimorebanner.com

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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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