The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As judges rule against Dan Cox, Md. Dems press him to accept results

Maryland Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick) in May 2020. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

An appeals panel ruled Thursday against Dan Cox’s effort to stop poll workers from confidentially counting mail-in ballots early, as his political opponents amplified concerns about whether the GOP nominee for Maryland governor will accept the results of the November election.

Cox has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether he would respect the results if courts ruled against him, only saying he would accept the outcome if ballots were counted after Election Day, as has been the normal practice.

Cox’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the ruling. Cox, a freshman delegate from Frederick County, previously committed to accepting the results in his race against Democrat Wes Moore if the rules were not changed, saying that relief sought by the State Board of Elections after a bruising primary cycle marked by delayed results would sow mistrust in the system and that such changes should be enacted by the legislature, not by a court during the height of campaign season.

Maryland Democrats, meanwhile, launched a campaign earlier in the day casting Cox’s stance as dangerous to democracy, focusing on his denial of the 2020 presidential election results.

“Dan Cox’s decision to file an appeal against the court’s ruling regarding the counting of mail-in ballots isn’t a surprise by any means,” Maryland Democratic Party Chair Yvette Lewis said at a news conference before the Court of Special Appeals panel released its ruling. “It’s straight from his cult leader’s playbook of deny and delay.”

Most recently, Cox, who has described the 2020 presidential election as “stolen,” would not commit to accepting the results of the governor’s race during a forum at Morgan State University on Tuesday night.

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“I believe very firmly in making sure that our system works. I don’t believe in changing the rules midstream,” he said. “I don’t believe in making a system that creates questions. I don’t believe in losing our chain of custody with mail-in ballots. I don’t believe in failure to assert and verify that it’s actually voters voting.”

The tumult comes amid a backdrop of heightened focus nationally on so-called election integrity, a term that rose to prominence in the wake of former president Donald Trump’s defeat and ensuing campaign to cast doubt on President Biden’s victory. Across the country, more than half of GOP candidates running for positions with significant roles in overseeing future elections in battleground states have disputed the validity of the 2020 election.

Experts warn that having election deniers in roles with that power could bring chaos to presidential elections — potentially delaying results, undermining confidence in the electoral process system and heightening division.

In Maryland, while the governor does not play a direct role in administering elections, Democrats are still raising Cox’s fight against early voting and his election denial as a threat to democracy — and as a way to point voters to Moore.

Lewis was joined by state Sens. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) and Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) at the news conference calling on Cox to accept the results of the election, regardless of the process.

“With Donald Trump and Dan Cox raising doubts about the accuracy of our elections, the sanctity of our system,” Kagan said, “we cannot afford to have delays.”

The legal action centers on an outdated law prohibiting election workers from counting mail-in ballots until two days after the election — the only rule of its kind in the country. As voting patterns shifted and mail-in voting increased, the rule led to significant delays during the state’s primaries. To avoid delays in November, the State Board of Elections successfully filed a petition asking a judge to suspend the law and allow canvassing to begin Oct. 1.

Cox filed a notice of appeal earlier this week. His lawyers asked the judges to prevent early ballot counting until his arguments could be considered. Shortly after the State Board of Elections filed its response on Thursday, the court denied Cox’s motion. Cox’s lawyer, Ed Hartman, said in an email that the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, requested a response by noon Friday and that the legal team will better know then how to proceed.

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Cox has said he’s fighting the decision to support the constitutional process and protect the “integrity of elections.” His ambiguity on whether he will accept results should not come as a surprise, the Democrats said in the news conference. Election integrity was a key part of his primary platform.

Cox has been criticized for chartering buses to the “Stop the Steal” Trump rally near the White House that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol — a charge he has contested — and for a tweet he sent during the riot calling Vice President Mike Pence “a traitor.” He later expressed regret for his choice of words.

Cox’s stance on the 2020 election reflects a larger divide in the Republican Party, said Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political science professor who noted the question of safeguarding elections should be nonpartisan.

“I think it’s dangerous that so many people still hold the position that the 2020 election wasn’t free and fair,” Kromer said.

Erin Cox and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.