It’s a mess. And there are lots of excuses offered. Some blame it on the pandemic. Others blame it on the governor. And still others blame it on the logistical effects of a delay of the state’s primary date because of legal challenges to a botched redistricting effort. But none of those reasons explain why Maryland is the only state that forbids the opening of mail-in ballots until after Election Day. It is because of that restriction that voters in Maryland face frustrating vote-counting delays that may still be going on as you read this. The process needs to change.
The Maryland restriction on mail-in ballot counting has been on the books for years. But until recently, it didn’t make much of a difference, since fewer than 10% of Maryland voters used mail-in ballots. Then came the pandemic, which changed everything. In 2020 voting, 97% of Maryland voters cast mail-in ballots. And once voters saw how easy and convenient mail-in voting can be, they opted to do so this year. That put a major strain on the system, when some 500,000 Marylanders chose to vote by mail.
For vote-counting purposes under exiting Maryland law, it doesn’t matter when the ballots were sent in — they may not be processed, validated or counted until two days after Election Day. That means that in close contests no winner can be determined the evening of Election Day or even in the ensuing days, as ballots need to be opened, signatures and addresses need to be validated, and the votes themselves counted — while everyone waits.
None of this is a surprise. In an attempt to address the issue and speed up the process, the Maryland legislature passed a bill this past spring that would have allowed the opening and counting of mail-in ballots to begin (but results not be announced) eight days before Election Day. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the bill, saying that the legislation did not provide for adequate security measures, such as signature verification. And so Maryland has a vote-counting mess.
As we go to press, a week after Election Day, there are still some Maryland primary races that have not been called. This is unacceptable. Other states have found a way to handle mail-in voting. Indeed, 38 states and the Virgin Islands permit election officials to begin processing absentee/mail-in ballots prior to the election. This includes Maryland’s neighbors Virginia and Delaware. Washington, D.C., permits election officials to begin processing absentee/mail ballots on Election Day, but prior to the closing of the polls, as do nine other states, including Pennsylvania.
If those processes work everywhere else, they should work in Maryland. We urge state leaders to fix the vote counting embarrassment of their antiquated system, and provide Maryland’s candidates and voters with prompt and conclusive voting results like virtually every other state in the union.