A ballot drop box in Montgomery County. Credit: Photo by Dan Schere

This story was updated at 9:05 a.m. July 23, 2022, to include details about the canvassing schedule. It was updated at noon July 26, 2022, to clarify what web delivery mail-in ballots are.

The wait for final results from the July 19 primary election did not end for many state and local candidates once the tally of early voting and Election Day ballots was announced Wednesday. 

That’s because tens of thousands of mail-in ballots still need to be counted, which could end up determining the final outcomes of several state and county races — including the county executive race, in which incumbent Marc Elrich trails David Blair by less than 600 votes after the results of the first round of mail-in ballots in the Democratic primary were released Thursday night. 

As the counting of mail-in and provisional ballots continues, here’s a look at how the process works.

How many mail-in and provisional ballots still need to be counted? 

That’s difficult to say for multiple reasons. 

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The county Board of Elections can accept any mail-in ballots as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19. 

The number of ballots received by the local board have been updated at least daily via the State Board of Elections website. As of Friday afternoon, 118,571 mail-in ballots had been sent to county voters, and 34,867 had been returned. 

David Naimon, secretary of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said Thursday night during the Democratic Women’s Club’s “Kiss and Make Up” event in Silver Spring that around 27,000 mail-in ballots were sitting in the board’s warehouse, meaning that the receipt of these ballots had not been reported by the county or state. About another 9,000 provisional ballots also need to be counted.

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That means more than 30,000 mail-in and provisional ballots have not been logged into the system, as of Friday afternoon. So more than 60,000 ballots still need to be counted — along with any others the county board of elections receives through July 29.

What does the canvassing process look like?

Bipartisan teams of election canvassers began counting ballots at 10 a.m. Thursday at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus. Election workers take a break from canvassing on Sunday, July 24, and Tuesday, July 26, but could continue the overall process on all other dates, depending on how many ballots need to be counted.

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Gilberto Zelaya, a spokesman for the county’s Board of Elections, said county officials needed a bigger space than the board’s Gaithersburg office because of the number of ballots, sorting equipment, number of early voting centers, and other logistical needs. 

Zelaya noted the scanning of the ballots occurs at the county’s Board of Elections office in Gaithersburg, not the canvassing site in Germantown. The scanning and tabulation of the ballots is what signifies updates to the state Board of Elections.

He told reporters earlier this week that canvassers will remove the flap from the mail-in ballot envelope, and if they see a voter signature, then the ballot doesn’t have to be “cured.” 

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If they don’t see a signature, then county election officials contact the voter in question, who must come to the office to sign the voter oath on the mail-in ballot envelope. 

What is the process for different types of mail-in and provisional ballots? 

Naimon said that the easiest ballots to process are mail-in ballots received through the mail because they usually take the least amount of time for canvassers to examine and count.

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About 15% of mail-in ballots, however, were those that were emailed or otherwise sent electronically to county voters. That’s the highest number received by any county in the state, Naimon said.

On Saturday, election workers will spend the day hand-copying those ballots that were sent via web delivery, and mailed to the county Board of Elections, Naimon said. It’s a deliberate process that takes time and is required by law, he said.

“Basically, we have this 21st-century technology to send you your ballot, and we use a 17th-century technology to hand copy it to another piece of paper,” Naimon said. “And we have to do that for 15% of all the mail-in ballots.”

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County election workers also have to count the 9,000 provisional ballots, Naimon said. The canvass of those is scheduled for July 27 in Germantown. 

What is a provisional ballot?

According to the state elections board website, provisional ballots are used if voters were previously unable to prove their address, due to moving or because a county elections board does not have it on file for some other reason. 

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Provisional ballots can also be cast by voters on Election Day or during early voting if they received but did not submit a mail-in ballot, or if records incorrectly show they already voted, according to the state board.

How many ballots will be counted per day?

Naimon said county canvassers and election workers counted about 9,000 mail-in ballots Thursday. But because of the variables concerning how ballots were received, it’s unclear how many ballots will specifically be counted during each canvassing day.

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Zelaya said that it’s possible that the number of ballots counted could go up as election workers get used to the process.

“Keep in mind, on day one … there are first-day jitters, and getting the muscle memory [of handling the ballots],” Zelaya said. “Just like any athlete preparing for a match, you get into a rhythm of handling these ballots.”

He added, however, that the canvassers are handling random batches of 50 ballots at a time, which means counts could vary by the day. There could be coffee stains, stray marks, or other issues that election workers need to examine, Zelaya and Naimon said.

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“You don’t know what you’re going to get when you get that batch of ballots,” Zelaya said.

What stray marks are allowed on a ballot and what are not?

During the canvassing, the Board of Elections will vote on whether to accept ballots or deny them based on how they are marked if there are potential issues. Naimon said the most common issue so far has been dealing with ballots in which voters filled in a bubble in a certain race, then crossed it out with an X and filled in another bubble. 

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It is fine if voters do that, but if they initial or sign anywhere on the ballot itself, it cannot be counted, per state law, Naimon said. That’s because it would be considered an “identifying mark,” he said — and thus, the ballot would not be secret.

But other notes are allowed, as long as there is no signature, Naimon said. And the county Board of Elections saw a unique example of that on Thursday — one voter had scribbled comments about each gubernatorial candidate near their names on the ballot.

“We have seen a lot on ballots,” said Naimon, who has served on the board since 2011. “I have never seen one like that before.”  

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Will ballots be counted in the order they are received through the mail or ballot drop boxes?

It’s uncertain. Naimon and Zelaya said they don’t have any way of knowing when ballots were received. 

When will updates of the county’s results be posted to the State Board of Elections website?

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Roughly speaking, daily updates will be posted around 11 p.m., the deadline provided by the state, Zelaya said. 

The reason all 9,000 ballots that were canvassed Thursday weren’t included in Thursday night’s results is because election officials couldn’t scan all of those ballots by the 11 p.m. deadline, he added. They were working on scanning whatever remained of those throughout the day Friday, Zelaya said.

What does all of this mean for close races?

It depends on how close the race is. Multiple candidates have told Bethesda Beat they don’t expect the results from counting mail-in ballots and provisional ballots to deviate much from early voting and Election Day voting trends. 

But in contests that are close — especially countywide — the wait for a final result could take days and even stretch into August. 

Many political observers are watching the county executive’s race, which was decided by 77 votes in 2018 when Elrich beat Blair in their first match-up. Blair currently leads with 30,337 votes (39.30%), while Marc Elrich, the incumbent, has 29,787 votes (38.59%).

Elrich has said that it could take until two weeks after Election Day to know a clear winner. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com