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Md. elections workers are still counting tens of thousands of ballots

Rising popularity of mail-in ballots -- and complications in counting them -- has left some local races undecided 10 days after the election and prompted calls for reform.

Voters fill out their ballots at Brunswick Middle School in Brunswick, Md., on Nov. 8, 2022. (Katina Zentz/The Frederick News-Post/AP)

Maryland election officials in several large counties blew past Friday’s normal deadline for certifying last week’s election results, digging out from an onslaught of mail-in votes as some races remained undecided 10 days after Election Day.

Headed into Thursday morning, more than 115,000 mail-in ballots — roughly 1 in 5 — had not been tallied statewide, according to the most recent data from the Maryland Board of Elections.

A handful of close state legislative and local offices lingered unresolved as elections workers grinded through more than 500,000 mail-in ballots, slowly revealing voters’ choices.

“It’s a bad way to do an election,” said Del. Trent M. Kittleman (R-Howard), who started with a more than 2,000-vote lead that shrank as mail-in ballots in her Howard County district were tallied. Friday, she finally learned she was likely to lose out on a third term in the Maryland General Assembly by about 16 votes. The delay, she said, “really has shocked almost everyone I’ve talked to.”

The outcome — even after the Maryland State Board of Elections secured a judge’s permission for workers to confidentially tally ballots early — builds on frustrations over a primary season marked by lengthy delays. Voters’ increasing use of mail-in ballots has taxed the state’s election infrastructure and prompted lawmakers to call for change.

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Other races for the state legislature still hung in the balance late Friday, and elections officials had no estimate for when all the tallying might end. The traditional deadline for certifying results, set in law for Friday, is suspended when jurisdictions haven’t finished counting votes.

Two state senate races were finally determined Friday — flipping seats from Republican to Democrat — and widening the Democrats’ supermajority dominance in the Maryland Senate. In the House of Delegates, the Democratic caucus added two seats to last year’s supermajority of 99, and were on the cusp of adding a third as votes were tallied in Howard County.

Altogether, that would give Democrats 135-53 advantage in the General Assembly, alongside a full suite of Democrats in the top state jobs and all but one of Maryland’s 10-person congressional delegation.

Although the outcome of some races became clear Friday afternoon, the enormous volume of mail-in ballots will leave election officials in some places tallying votes until the last minute. (State law allows counties to certify results 48 hours after they finish counting if they’re not done by Friday.)

Montgomery County, for example, started canvassing again Friday morning with more than 30,000 ballots left to go — about a quarter of the total it received. Another counting session was scheduled for Saturday, three days of the following Thanksgiving week, and at least four days on the week after.

Even with that plan, said Gilberto Zelaya, spokesman for the Montgomery County Board of Elections, local elections officials’ broad goal is to finish by Nov. 30, the day before new school board members are scheduled to be sworn in.

Baltimore City, and Prince George’s and Washington counties, also did not expect to complete the counting by the end of Friday, said Maryland State Board of Elections Deputy Administrator Nikki Baines Charlson. She added that a few other counties were unsure whether Friday’s counting efforts would finish the last batches of votes, or if the counting there would continue.

Frederick County delivered results in the closely watched county executive race late Friday, with Democrat Jessica Fitzwater besting Republican Michael Hough by nearly a thousand votes.

The prolonged delays come from a rapid adoption of mail-in ballots by Maryland voters, coupled by a few barriers to quickly counting them — staffing, a veto of restructuring, and a laborious web-balloting system.

This year, more than 25 percent of Maryland’s roughly 1.9 million votes were cast by mail or drop box, fewer than the 2020 presidential election that was conducted primarily by mail but a huge increase from the last gubernatorial election in 2018, when 5 percent of voters cast a ballot that way.

The court ruling allowing jurisdictions to open ballots early came too late or was not welcomed by elections offices, which must conduct a week-long early voting operation in addition to Election Day — and continue to encounter pandemic-era staffing shortages.

An old Maryland law prohibits counties from opening mail-in ballots until two days after Election Day — a policy that worked fine when mail-in votes accounted for a small share of ballots. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) suspended that law when the 2020 election was conducted during a public health emergency, and the General Assembly passed a bill to permanently change it earlier this year.

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But Hogan vetoed that law, objecting to different provisions and leaving uncertainty about how elections officials should proceed.

“It caused a hot mess,” said Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who introduced the law Hogan vetoed. Kagan plans to propose legislation to fix that and several other procedural problems when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Although the state elections board persuaded a judge to allow counties to start tallying early this fall, not all of them did. Even those that started early — such as Montgomery — still had huge piles of ballots to count after Election Day. Just 22 percent of the mail-in ballots were tallied in time to report Election Day results. The vast majority were left until afterward.

“The bottom line is the local boards need more time, and they need more notice,” Kagan said Friday. “The jurisdictions didn’t hire the people, they didn’t reserve the space … There’s a lot that needs to be fixed.”

Web-delivered ballots, which voters can print at home and mail back, further slowed down counting, elections officials say. According to state law, each of those ballots must be hand copied then double-checked by a bipartisan pair of election judges onto special balloting paper that can be fed through the counting machine. Statewide, 14.8 percent of mail-in voters opted to have that type of ballot, according to the most recent board of elections data.

This story has been updated to include results from Frederick County.