Cheryl C. Kagan, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland Senate, where she is vice chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over election law.
How could this be?
An outdated law, an evolution in voting habits, technology and old-fashioned partisan politics are to blame.
Thirty-eight states specifically allow for mailed ballots to be counted before Election Day. Eleven states and D.C. allow election administrators to start processing these ballots before polls close. Maryland is the only state that specifically forbids opening and scanning mail-in ballots until two days after Election Day.
This hasn’t been a problem until recently. In 2014, just 3 percent of the roughly 734,000 ballots came in the mail. These were generally college students, business travelers, military personnel or those facing health crises. That night, the leading candidate declared victory after his opponents conceded defeat before 10 p.m.
Maryland allows “no-excuse absentee ballots,” offering flexibility to busy people. During the coronavirus pandemic, voters shifted from traditional polling places to casting ballots from home and mailing them (postage-paid) or depositing them in secure and video-monitored drop-off boxes.
More than 500,000 Marylanders chose the mail-in option for this primary election. Depending on the number that are returned, we could be looking at half the ballots (or more) processed after Election Day.
With the exception of landslide or uncontested elections, it would be foolhardy to predict a winner based solely on the ballots cast in person during early voting or on Election Day.
Why didn’t we allow our 24 county boards of elections to start processing ballots earlier? Well, we tried.
In 2020, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued an executive order for mail-in ballot counting to begin 33 days before Election Day. Even with that much of a head start, the general election was not officially certified until Nov. 30. Many local candidates were sworn in to office the very next day.
This year, I sponsored a bill to allow for early processing of mail-in ballots a modest eight days before the start of early voting. Despite Hogan’s message of support for this early canvassing, he vetoed the bill. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters sent a letter to the governor condemning his decision. Cynics had two explanations for his perplexing veto. Some muse whether this was pandering to the right wing of the Republican Party as he contemplates a presidential bid. Others suggest a strategic tactic to further compress the general-election timetable to help his preferred gubernatorial candidate, Kelly M. Schulz.
Hogan refused to take executive action again. And the State Board of Elections declined to bring a legal case for emergency relief.
So we will wait. And wait.
This extraordinary delay creates several problems. First, it adds a massive burden to our hard-working, competent and dedicated local elections staff. The uninformed will blame (or even threaten) these workers for the lack of timely results. After all, it’s estimated that scanners can process only 10,000 ballots in a 12-hour shift. Second, the delay shortens the already abbreviated campaign season between the primary and general elections created by the court-ordered postponement to the voting schedule. Third and most troubling, conspiracy theorists are likely to raise unfounded doubts and make false allegations that fraud or corruption are the only explanations for the delay. The tally will definitely change when the mail-in ballots are added to those counted on Election Day. This is neither unexpected nor suspicious.
So what can you do about this?
- If you requested a mail-in ballot, complete it. Sign the oath on the envelope and send it (postage-paid) through the post office or slip it into a convenient, secure, video-monitored drop-off box before 8 p.m. Tuesday. If you try voting in person after having requested a mail-in ballot, you’ll only be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, which won’t be counted until a week after Election Day.
- Don’t ask for an online-delivered ballot. Though it sounds quick and easy, it’s not. Voters will need a printer, an envelope, a stamp and more. Then, the local elections staffers need to hire bipartisan teams to transfer your selections to scannable ballot stock. This process makes more work for voters and is supremely time-consuming and expensive for election administrators. Your ballot will be counted even later than mail-in ballots.
- Share the expectation of delayed results with your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Correct their rumors, allay their fears and express your confidence in our election systems.
Truly, you might be shopping for back-to-school clothing before we know the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial nominees. With nine candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, the margin of victory could be very narrow and will require time-consuming, accurate and thorough tabulation before certification. Montgomery County, Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, has a goal of certifying its election results no later than Aug. 12. The State Board of Elections would likely certify within a week of Montgomery County.
Maryland will always be committed to fair and accurate elections. That’s what our democracy requires. Though this timetable might be much later than we’re used to, that’s what we’ll have to accept for now. Let’s hope this will be changed before November.