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Frederick officials re-scan ballots after finding error in primary results

Election workers re-scan ballots at the Frederick County Board of Elections on Aug. 10. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, the Frederick County Board of Elections voted to decertify the results of its primary election and began the tedious and much scrutinized process of re-scanning all its mail-in and provisional ballots, days after officials realized the number of votes counted exceeded the number of ballots they received.

Election Director Barbara Wagner said she believed that 96 mail-in ballots had been scanned twice and four provisional ballots had been misplaced — attributing both to human error.

The mistake would have been difficult in any year — but the current climate of division further raised the stakes for Frederick officials, given that such errors can become fuel for election-related conspiracy theories. But after years of managing misinformation relating to the accuracy of election results — much of it peddled by former president Donald Trump and his followers — Wagner and outside election experts said Frederick’s mistake could be an opportunity to show the public that even when there are election errors, there are systems in place to rectify the mistakes.

“I’m hoping it will show that we do have integrity,” Wagner said. “And if we find something wrong, we're going to self-report it and we're going to make it right.”

The decertification comes toward the end of an unprecedented gubernatorial primary election cycle in Maryland. A surge in mail-in voting delayed results in state and local races as officials counted the ballots, following an outdated state law prohibiting election workers from processing mailed ballots until two days after the election.

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Republican Del. Dan Cox, who won his party’s nomination for governor and hails from Frederick, made challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election a key plank of his platform — the Trump-endorsed candidate had even traveled to Pennsylvania after President Biden’s win to work as a lawyer trying to decertify that state’s results. He’s pledged not to concede in November until every vote is counted. During the primary election, he warned supporters to not cast provisional ballots, falsely saying none would be counted.

Cox did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. After the mistake was announced Monday, his running mate, Gordana Schifanelli, tweeted, “I call on everyone to end mail-in balloting practices now.”

There is no evidence the error was a result of ballots being mailed in.

On Wednesday morning, about two dozen election officials — all from Frederick and neighboring counties — along with observers gathered in the cramped county elections office to fix it by kicking off the re-scanning process.

Among the observers was Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who watched as election workers made their way through more than 16,000 mail-in and provisional ballots.

The counting error was discovered as the county was preparing for a recount of a county council race between incumbent M.C. Keegan-Ayer and challenger Jazmin Di Cola, who was ahead of Keegan-Ayer by just three votes.

Jenkins, a controversial Republican elected as sheriff in 2006, said he had heard concerns about the integrity of the election from residents in phone calls, emails and in general conversations, both before the primary and after the announcement of the error on Monday. With that in mind, he thought to himself, “You know what, I’m going to take the time to go across town, and kind of insert myself, and get an understanding of exactly what happens and what the process looks like.”

Jennifer Morrell, a partner with the Elections Group, a nonpartisan consulting firm that advises elections officials, said the Frederick case is a “prime example” of a human error in the process that, if not handled well, could fuel false allegations of misconduct.

“Election officials are totally aware that they’re now being looked at under a microscopic lens. They know the spotlight is on them,” she said.

And for Wagner, the spotlight was bright Wednesday morning. Making a point to emphasize every step in the process, she explained to workers and handful of public onlookers about what the process for re-scanning the ballots would look like: Eight teams of two representatives from two different parties would be handed a batch of ballots. Each team would hand-tally the number of ballots in each batch. Then the batch of ballots would be handed off to a scanner, where votes would be tabulated. That process was completed on Wednesday, with the results showing Di Cola’s lead narrowing to just one vote.

Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections team at the nonpartisan Democracy Fund, said it’s not uncommon for there to be discrepancies between the number of ballots counted and the number of ballots scanned — in many other states though, she said, the timeline allows for a longer and fuller review before certification.

Under the tight deadlines in Maryland law — which requires local boards to certify results by the second Friday after Election Day — it is more difficult to identify these kinds of issues before certification.

Patrick said the discrepancy in Frederick County should help assure people that the system really does work.

“I’ve seen some of the social media posts from people with their hair on fire saying that this demonstrates why vote-by-mail is bad,” Patrick said. “No, it isn’t, and no, it doesn’t. What it demonstrates is that people are human. People make mistakes."

Jenkins, the sheriff, said in an interview Wednesday that he supports eliminating mail-in voting altogether and limiting voting to casting ballots only on Election Day, seeing alternative voting options like mail-in balloting as the source of the problem. Still, he said, he was impressed with the system he saw play out Wednesday at the elections office.

“I have confidence in the process, and more importantly locally, and I’m talking locally because I know a lot of the people on the board of elections,” Jenkins said. “I trust the people, I trust the local process.”