Maryland election officials turn to courts to count mail-in votes early

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Suspicious after an unprecedented primary cycle plagued by delayed results, Maryland election officials decided Monday to seek emergency legal action to avoid similar challenges in the fall.

After certifying the primary results at a Monday afternoon meeting, the State Board of Elections voted unanimously, declaring no action, with the vote counting in November the general election — which will determine, among other things, Maryland’s next governor — could stretch into the holidays.

“It could be before Christmas and the New Year that we have the election results,” said board member Justin Williams, noting that delays could be an even bigger hurdle due to tighter certification deadlines. .

Voters and candidates sometimes waited weeks for results after the July 19 election as officials compiled a massive volume of mail-in ballots that Maryland law prohibits them from processing until two days after the polls close. State lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that would have removed this provision the only law of its kind in the country but Governor Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the bill, citing concerns about other aspects of the measure – cementing a electoral cycle riddled with delays and obstacles for electoral officials.

The council is asking for emergency assistance from a circuit court that would allow mail-in ballots to be solicited and tabulated before Election Day. No results will be published before the close of the polls on election day.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who passed the bill that Hogan vetoed, said she was happy to see the council act and hoped the court would act on it.

“The veto of my bill, Senate Bill 163, caused a big problem in the delays, and it was unfortunate and avoidable,” Kagan said at Monday’s board meeting. “But really big shout out to you four for just voting unanimously to bring in a legal initiative, and hopefully it gets approved by the circuit court and we can make sure the votes are counted in a timely manner. “

Certification on Monday officially sealed Wes Moore (D), a bestselling author who has garnered high profile celebrity and political endorsements, and Republican Del. Dan Cox, a first-term delegate who embraced Donald Trump’s rhetoric and tried to impeach Hogan, as gubernatorial candidates, along with all third-party candidates, to appear on the November ballot.

Voters waited days for Moore to be screened as Democratic nominee in July, and Montgomery County election officials counted absentee and provisional ballots for nearly three weeks after the primary. The local council in Montgomery, Maryland’s most populous county, just certified the results Saturday, and the county executive race is heading for a recount.

The standoff occurred as voting habits that changed during the coronavirus pandemic clashed with a rule rooted in election integrity issues.

The law, enacted at a time when few people voted by mail, was intended to ensure that results by mail could not be released early and influence the outcome of an election.

When mail-in voting gained popularity in Maryland and across the country in 2020, Hogan issued an emergency order allowing mail-in ballots to be counted before Election Day. But the order expired and mail-in voting remained popular.

The state received more than 345,000 mail-in ballots in the 2022 primary, up from nearly 30,000 in 2018.

Hogan, who in May vetoed The legislature’s effort to extend the early count on unrelated election security issues in the same bill, welcomed the council’s decision on Monday.

“The Governor strongly supports the Board of Directors finally taking steps to adopt an early solicitation – as it did for the 2020 elections – and remedy the failure of the General Assembly to pass a simple draft law that would have allowed this to happen,” Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a statement. statement. “We hope the court acts quickly and the legislature acts in the future to codify the governor’s successful early doorstep measure.”

The state Board of Elections considered asking a court to waive the primary rule after Hogan’s veto, but decided not to pursue legal action because time was running out. After the council saw how the primary had gone, members said they were ready to seek redress.

“I think it’s a prudential step we’re taking,” board member Severn ES Miller said at the meeting.

The council will file a petition with a circuit court “with sufficient time for the court to consider the petition and for local election commissions to plan pre-election canvassing,” according to a statement released after the vote.

The council will have to prove to the court that this is an emergency circumstance affecting the electoral process, and that the court’s assistance “is in the public interest and protects the integrity of the electoral process”, says the communicated. If counsel argues its case, the court may take any action it deems necessary.

“I think most judges will be reasonable and sympathetic to the idea of ​​moving forward with democracy,” Kagan said in an interview Monday. “But there’s the risk that an aberrant person, an extremist, will say no, and then we’re really going to be in dire straits.”

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