Local election boards in Maryland could soon begin counting absentee ballots for the 2020 presidential election under emergency regulations put in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Those regulations, previously drafted by state election officials, were reviewed Friday by the General Assembly’s Administrative, Legislative and Executive Review Committee. The rules would allow boards around the state to begin counting returned absentee ballots weeks before that typically is done.
Election officials said the change was needed to allow for a timely compilation of the Nov. 2 election results.
“Some of the larger local boards are hoping to start very soon because, of course, their volume is so significant that the sooner they can get started the more they’ll be able to count before Election Day and hopefully not continue well into November or December,” Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Charlson said Friday. “They would like to start very soon so that they can keep up with the ballots that are, in fact, coming in.”
In a typical year, absentee ballots are counted after votes are cast at polling places around the state. This year, however, is not a typical year.
State officials are urging residents to avoid long lines at polling places and potential health risks related to the novel coronavirus by voting by mail. For the general election, 4 million voters in Maryland were mailed applications to request an absentee ballot, a change from the June primary when voters received official ballots in the mail and were encouraged to vote by mail.
But problems with the primary ballots as well as delivery delays and other issues forced a change for the November election.
The emergency regulations approved earlier by the Maryland Board of Elections allowed for the possibility of counting to begin on Oct. 1 but Charlson said that has not yet happened.
Currently, nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots have been requested by Maryland voters. The first wave of ballots were mailed in late September. Prior to this year, the highest number of absentee ballots mailed was 233,000 in 2008.
Five jurisdictions — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore city — account for nearly 70% of all requests so far. Montgomery County is responsible for the most requests, more than 290,000 as of Oct. 2, according to the elections board.
So far, about 8,000 completed ballots have been returned.
“That’s not a huge number, but ballots have only been out a week,” said Charlson. “We are seeing them come in and we’d like to give them the authority for them to start (counting) very soon.”
Anne Arundel County and Baltimore city could begin as early as Monday with other counties beginning later in the month.
Increased opportunity to vote early as well as by mail has raised questions about whether voters could potentially change their minds because of an unforeseen change in the campaign.
On Friday, President Donald Trump and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 and raised speculation about what would happen should the president suffer from more severe or adverse effects of the disease.
Del. Susan McComas, R-Harford, asked Charlson if voters suffering from “buyer’s remorse” could change their votes if they already voted early.
“This is such an interesting election,” said McComas. “Things are dynamic. I mean, obviously today one of the candidates has COVID-19. I, mean, this is just a very dynamic time.”
Charlson said voters have no ability to change their minds.
“You can have buyer’s remorse, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Charlson. “Once you have scanned that ballot or you return your ballot, you have finished the process.”