“My blood just started boiling,” recalled McCray (D-Baltimore City), recounting his frustration over delays that resulted in 1 million registered voters in Baltimore City and Montgomery County receiving their ballots late — or not at all.
State elections officials blamed the error on an out-of-state vendor but said a full audit will have to wait until after the primary, when voters will choose nominees for president, Baltimore mayor and City Council, and all eight of Maryland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Elections officials have been working for weeks to implement an order from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) that postponed the primary from April 28 and called for the election to be conducted mostly by mail.
The governor ordered ballots mailed to the home of every registered voter in the state.
As a last resort, there will also be a limited number of in-person voting centers, staffed by poll workers wearing masks and other protective gear.
But officials are urging voters to return their ballots by mail or at designated drop-box locations.
Voting and drop-box locations are listed on the websites of the state and local boards of elections. Ballots must be postmarked or in the drop boxes by June 2 to be counted.
As of Friday, about 3.5 million ballots had been mailed to voters, and about 461,000 completed ballots had been returned, according to state data.
But in Baltimore, about 336,000 ballots that should have been mailed on May 8 did not go out until May 14, said Nikki Charlson, a deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections.
In Montgomery County, about 670,000 ballots were mailed late as well, Charlson said.
Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore NAACP, said he had not received his ballot by Friday evening. He said the state should have learned more from its “practice run,” a mostly mail-in special election for one congressional seat in April.
“This fiasco was avoidable,” Little said. “We will experience some voter suppression because of all the mistakes that were made.”
Charlson said the state was disappointed to learn that its vendor, SeaChange, based in Minnesota, did not deliver ballots on schedule and did not notify the state about the delay.
“Right now we are just focusing on getting ballots to voters and making sure everyone has the opportunity to vote,” she said. “After the election, we are going to require a full accounting of the process.”
Wendi Breuer, president of SeaChange, said once the election was moved primarily to mail-in ballots, the state asked her company to produce many more ballots than usual.
She acknowledged that some of the ballots were produced later than projected but blamed the delay on the state, which she said provided the files to SeaChange several days later than promised.
“We have all worked around-the-clock — from the state election officials to election service providers to USPS,” Breuer said in a statement. “Our goal is to ensure every voter expecting a vote-by-mail ballot receives their ballot in time to vote, and we’ve done just that.”
Charlson confirmed that some files were late but said SeaChange provided misleading information about when the ballots would be produced.
She praised the U.S. Postal Service for arranging for a truck with multiple drivers to deliver ballots printed in Minnesota to Baltimore several nights in a row.
In both Baltimore and Montgomery, voters who did not receive their ballots by Saturday should request ballots by phone at 1-800-222-8683 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Charlson said.
But elected officials and advocates frustrated with the situation noted that the ability to print a ballot at home is useless for people without access to a computer and printer.
“First, you have to remember we’re a majority-minority jurisdiction,” McCray said. “One in four families are living in poverty in the city of Baltimore. We have a declining population. How could someone not think about how important this election is in front of us?”
Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore City) said the state’s television, radio and digital ad campaign was not aggressive enough to educate voters about how to vote by mail or what to do if they didn’t receive a ballot. She noted that competitive mayoral and City Council races in Baltimore could reshape the city for years to come.
“In an emergency, how do we make sure all of these levels of democracy are still protected no matter what?” Smith said.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said the state was doing its best to accommodate Baltimore in an unprecedented situation.
“It’s just unfortunate that it’s always these areas that are hit the most,” she said.
In the congressional races, none of the incumbents appear vulnerable, according to independent analysts.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who was elected in April to complete the term of the late congressman Elijah E. Cummings, is competing for the nomination for a full term against more than a dozen fellow Democrats, including state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who was married to the late congressman.
Down-ballot races include circuit court judges, school board seats and other local contests.