And each week, more requests for those Web-delivered ballots are rolling into election offices around the state, dramatically increasing the pressure on a system built for a far different type of election.
A month ahead of the deadline, more than 111,000 people have requested Web-delivered blank ballots — nearly twice the volume of the previous election. About 924,000 voters have so far asked for ballots to be mailed to them.
The Web-delivered ballots offer front-end expediency for voters, who can follow a link in their email, enter credentials on a website and download a ballot packet to print at home on regular paper.
But on the back end, that plain paper becomes a first draft, and every voter’s choices must be transcribed onto oversize cardstock that can be scanned.
For transparency’s sake, the transcription is done by a pair of judges — one a Republican, the other a Democrat. One judge reads the ballot choices aloud, and the other marks them down on the ballot. Then the judges switch jobs to check each other’s work.
The process takes about five minutes per ballot, election officials said. As of Thursday, that added up to more than 9,000 hours of work just to get the ballots ready to be scanned.
“It is all but certain not all emailed ballots will be returned in time to be copied, scanned and tabulated on election night,” Nikki Baines Charlson, the deputy administrator of the Maryland Board of Elections, said in an email this week.
Ballots are counted after they are scanned. An initial tally will be released after polls close on Election Day, with results updated as more ballots are scanned and tabulated.
Under federal law, every state in the country is required to offer Web-delivered ballots for the military. Washington state, which mails every voter a blank ballot, also has some expanded Web-delivery options for voters.
But just two states — Maryland and Alaska — allow all voters to choose Web delivery, an option that election officials say is safe, though it has raised concerns among watchdogs about hacking and fraud.
In Alaska, scanning machines can count those votes without every ballot being copied onto cardstock by election judges, said Carol A. Thompson, division operations manager for Alaska’s Division of Elections. Voters seem to like the option, and demand keeps rising: In June, the state processed a record 8,500 Web-delivered ballots statewide.
“Year after year, it increases,” Thompson said.
In Maryland, requests for Web-delivered ballots increased sharply this summer amid concerns about the reliability of mail service and the risks of voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic.
The pace was so furious that some election officials feared they would not be able to transcribe and count all the Web-delivered ballots by mid-December, when the state’s presidential electors convene to seal Maryland’s votes in the electoral college.
Officials launched several efforts to avoid that outcome.
The state Board of Elections rewrote the mail-voting application to encourage people to request that their ballots be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service rather than online. The board also instructed a public relations firm, hired to inform voters about how the election would be conducted, to emphasize the cumbersome nature of the counting of Web-delivered ballots.
The dissuasion campaign appears to be working, according to state data. A few weeks ago, Web-delivered ballots accounted for roughly 20 percent of ballot requests statewide. Now, it is 11 percent.
But the message didn’t reach everyone.
Eric Singer, 42, said he asked for a digitally delivered ballot in mid-August because he wanted it to arrive at his Silver Spring home quickly. It was only when a link to the ballot landed in his inbox on Thursday that he understood the implications of his choice.
First, he discovered the Web-delivered ballot didn’t come with a prepaid, self-addressed return envelope. Then, after he contacted The Washington Post about the postage, he learned that his ballot couldn’t be scanned unless a pair of election judges copied his choices onto a new ballot.
“That is unbelievable,” Singer said in an interview. He said he plans to request a second ballot to be sent to him by mail, the remedy elections officials are recommending for voters who initially requested a Web-delivered ballot but can reliably get mail at their homes.
The Web-ballot issue was among the reasons the elections board used emergency powers to temporarily change state laws so judges could begin counting ballots on Oct. 1, more than five weeks earlier than normal. Another reason: Mail-in voting requests have quadrupled compared with 2016, and mailed ballots are expected to exceed 55 percent of all votes cast in the state.
In Montgomery County, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, 31,000 voters asked for Web-delivered ballots, and County Executive Marc Elrich (D) launched his own social media campaign to urge people to request mailed ballots instead. Dale Tibbitts, a special assistant to Elrich, said it is a delicate message to deliver — especially against the backdrop of national slowdowns in mail delivery.
“It’s a legitimate and a proper way to receive a ballot,” Tibbitts said of the Web option. “We can’t say ‘Don’t do it,’ but to the extent that you could do it using the mail, that would be so much more preferable.”
Maryland’s expansion of Web-delivered ballots dates to a 2013 overhaul of procedures that also introduced same-day voter registration and expanded the state’s early-voting program. It was partly a reaction to hours-long lines at precincts in 2012.
From the beginning, some lawmakers warned that the program would become cumbersome if used too broadly and that widespread Web delivery made the system vulnerable to abuse.
In February, for the third consecutive year, the Maryland General Assembly heard testimony on curtailing universal access to Web-delivered ballots. Those seeking a curtailment argued that the system unnecessarily exposed the state’s voting process to potential fraud.
“Maryland’s insistence on Internet ballot delivery for all is baffling and highly concerning,” said Poorvi L. Vora, a George Washington University computer science professor who studies electronic security and reviews voting systems.
She noted that the Mueller report on interference in the 2016 election described “a Russian company carrying out all the activities necessary to perpetrate online absentee ballot fraud at significant scale in Maryland” and pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that Russian hackers targeted the online balloting system in 2016.
This week, Vora reiterated in an email that her concerns are about hypothetical fraud — there’s no evidence that any fraud has occurred — and that her chief security worry now is about the “chaos caused by a large number of online ballot requests.”
“Even if these are all legitimate, the transcription of these ballots will stretch the state’s election administration,” Vora wrote. She encouraged voters to “reduce the load on the system” by opting for paper ballots delivered by mail, not the Web-delivered ballots.
In Montgomery, officials aim to staff a recreation center gymnasium in October with six teams of judges, dedicated exclusively to copying the choices that voters specify on Web-delivered ballots.
“It takes a while,” Tibbitts said. “You want to make sure that you get it right.”