Maryland voters may have to wait up to 10 days to learn which candidates won close 2022 primary races.
Vetoed legislation coupled with a decision by the Maryland State Board of Elections means there will likely be no early counting of hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots. The delay has some county officials worried.
“You know the conspiracy theories,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. “Our fear is this is just going to fuel more of that nonsense. That’s going to be the most damaging thing.”
In 2020, President Donald J. Trump saw in-person leads evaporate as Biden benefited from surges in mail-in votes that in many cases weren’t counted until after Election Day. The former president falsely claimed the election was stolen from him, an allegation that sparked the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Maryland adopted a wider use of mail-in ballots two years ago as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, Hogan issued an executive order that allowed local boards to count those ballots early so that election results could be known the same night.
This year, lawmakers passed a bill codifying how mail-in ballots were handled in 2020. It also settled a conflict in cases where a voter mails in a ballot but then attempts to vote in person.
In May, Hogan vetoed a bill that would have allowed local boards to tabulate mail-in ballots before Election Day. Those votes would be released after polls closed on July 19.
Hogan vetoed the bill, saying he objected not to what was in it but to oversight provisions he said were left out.
The governor criticized the legislation for not requiring signature verification and for not banning so-called ballot harvesting — the gathering and submitting of absentee or mail-in ballots by third-party individuals. Both have been concerns raised repeatedly by Republican lawmakers and rejected by the Democratic majority.
“As I’ve said, the governor is a strong supporter of early canvassing. It’s regrettable the legislature sent him a flawed bill,” said Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman.
County officials like Elrich hoped for a reprieve, including a special session to override the veto. Legal intervention by the Maryland State Board of Elections or a local board was another possibility. Some hoped the state board would go to court seeking a waiver that would allow early counting to begin.
The Republican-controlled state board Tuesday dashed those hopes.
“I will say that the board considered facts surrounding potential legal action for early canvassing privately and has elected not to take action at this time,” Maryland State Board of Elections Chairman William Voelp said Tuesday afternoon.
State elections officials referred questions to the chairman because his statement related to discussions held in a closed session that lasted more than an hour.
Voelp did not respond to an interview request.
The decision means the state’s 24 major subdivisions will not be able to certify and then count absentee ballots until July 21. That process in some larger counties might not be completed until a second round of counting occurs on July 29.
Nearly 460,000 mail-in ballots have been requested statewide. Nearly 70% of those are in five jurisdictions: Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
David Garreis, elections director for Anne Arundel County and president of the Maryland Association of Elections officials, said larger counties could struggle to keep up with the volume as teams of Democrat and Republicans process the ballots.
“It’s a lot of manual labor,” said Garreis. “It moves at the speed of a bipartisan pair.”
This year, Elrich’s county sent out 95,700 mail-in ballots — six times more than requested in 2018. That year there were more than 158,000 votes cast in the primary. Not every ballot requested is returned.
“Last cycle, less than 10% cast via mail-in,” said Rich Madaleno, the county administrative officer for Montgomery County. “This year we’re looking at 60% being cast by mail-in.”
Several races, including the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor, are toss-ups, according to polls released this week.
“If it’s really truly a substantial number of ballots that we’re waiting on, then the winner on Tuesday night might be different than the winner after all the ballots are counted,” said Elrich. “That’s not the kind of destabilizing effect that we need, particularly in this era of people increasingly distrusting some of the government processes.”