The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With key races undecided, Md. begins counting mail-in ballots

Observers watch as canvassers for Montgomery County Board of Elections review mail-in ballots for the primary election on July 21 in Germantown, Md. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

As scrutiny intensified Thursday of closely watched Maryland state and local races that hinge on mail-in ballot results, Montgomery County elections spokesman Gilberto Zelaya had to lay some ground rules.

“Lava,” Zelaya said, stepping over a line in the gray carpet. “Safe,” he said, stepping back. “Lava, safe,” he repeated.

Zelaya used the schoolyard game to keep about 20 observers and reporters from interfering with canvassers as they began the arduous process of checking tens of thousands of mail-in ballots — by hand.

The statewide ballot count is projected to take weeks, state officials have said, with the Democratic primaries for governor and Montgomery County executive, and a host of down-ballot races still hanging in the balance.

After a day of painstaking ballot processing, a few thousand mail-in ballot results were posted on the state website by 6:30 p.m., a fraction of the total, and none from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Results were trickling in from Calvert, Dorchester, Garrett, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and Worcester counties, according to the state website.

Election officials across the state were prohibited from beginning to count more than 250,000 ballots until the Thursday after Election Day, a delay Democrats blamed on Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who vetoed legislation that would have sped up the process. In his veto letter, Hogan said the bill would have allowed voters who neglect to sign their ballots to provide a signature in person, by mail, email or text, imperiling the security of the election.

The veto complicated a primary election that was already challenging. A redistricting lawsuit pushed the election itself back several weeks, to mid-July, when many voters were on vacation and too distracted to follow statewide races let alone local contests. On top of that, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic caused staffing shortages and disruptions in training.

Hogan defends veto at the heart of Maryland’s delayed election results

State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Rockville), who carried the bill Hogan vetoed, joined observers in Germantown.

“This was completely foreseeable,” said Kagan, who wore a mask with the word “vote” spelled out in sparkles.

“I am disappointed in the mess Governor Hogan created by vetoing my legislation, which would have allowed for earlier processing of mail-in ballots,” she said. “Having said that, I’m always inspired by democracy.”

Around the state, election officials were grappling with the fallout from an unusual election.

In Prince George’s County, council candidates Denise Smith and Barbara Holt Streeter observed canvassing at Lake Arbor Elementary School in Mitchellville as officials processed what elections administrator Alisha L. Alexander said could ultimately be 45,000 mail-in ballots.

Wanika Fisher, who leads the District 2 race for county council was also present.

“We just want to make sure the voters of District 2 are heard,” she said.

In Baltimore City, election officials found storage drives containing vote totals for a handful of its 296 precincts that were misplaced — a glitch that delayed the reporting of results. Another record of the votes exists on ballot scanners and paper ballots.

Baltimore City Council member Odette Ramos (D) said some of her constituents received incorrect mail-in ballots and registration cards and she plans to ask Monday for a council oversight hearing. “We’ve had a lot of irregularities in this election,” she said.

In Montgomery County, the canvass started in earnest at about 10:30 a.m. with loud chatter punctuated by the zap-zap sound of an Omation Model 306s Envelopener slicing open 50 ballots at a clip.

Canvassers sat at tables in teams composed of two people with different affiliations: a Republican and a Democrat, a Republican and an unaffiliated voter or a Democrat and an unaffiliated voter. Most were seasoned chief judges at polling places — people practiced at following the sometimes-convoluted rules for running fair elections — with a few young democracy enthusiasts sprinkled in.

Voters in Montgomery County requested about 115,000 mail-in ballots. As of Wednesday, the county board of elections had received 33,650 ballots, but officials expect more to trickle in, Zelaya said. Ballots can be accepted until 10 a.m. July 29, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day (July 19).

On Thursday, election officials transported 13,000 completed mail-in ballots to a multipurpose room in the Bioscience Education Center at the Germantown campus of Montgomery College. As canvassers deem ballots “clean” — meaning they are not torn, stained or otherwise defaced — the ballots will be transported to a central elections office in Gaithersburg to be counted and results uploaded to the state website later, said Zelaya, the elections spokesman.

By 1 p.m., two ballots were referred to board members for their consideration. In one case, a voter signed their ballot — a no-no in a secret ballot system — and in the other the voter circled two candidates’ names and crossed one out.

A process that could take weeks was set back a bit further due to the heat, which kept some elderly canvassers home, reducing the brigade to 16 teams, instead of the 19 officials expected.

“The buzzword of the next three weeks is patience,” Zelaya said. “You wouldn’t rush a heart surgeon.”

By 6 p.m., canvassers in Montgomery County had gone through about 8,000 ballots, which officials planned to load on a truck to be tabulated by machine before results would be publicly available, Zelaya said.

Campaigns had no choice but to wait.

In the Montgomery County executive race, incumbent Marc Elrich and Potomac businessman David Blair were locked in a tight Democratic primary race — just like four years ago — and both camps sent their campaign managers to the canvass. Last time, Elrich won by 77 votes.

“Mark is always very positive, he’s very patient so I’m following his lead,” said Elrich’s manager, Teresa Woorman, who wore a necklace that spelled out vote.

“We’re in wait-and-see mode like everyone else,” Blair spokesman Aaron Kraut said. “We have faith in the board of elections process.”

Scott Clement, Karina Elwood, Amber Ferguson and Steve Thompson contributed to this report.

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