County Board of Elections members examine a ballot on Aug. 3. Credit: Photo by Steve Bohnel

For the candidates and those following the Montgomery County executive race, waiting for the results of the 2022 Democratic primary may be reminiscent of watching the 1993 film Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray portrays a TV newscaster who is stuck reliving the same day over and over. 

That’s because the weeks-long counting of mail-in and provisional votes after the July 19 primary is similar to the weeks that the County Executive Marc Elrich and challenger David Blair spent in 2018 as they waited for the final results in their first matchup. With the certified results showing Elrich ahead by just 79 votes in the 2018 primary, Blair requested a partial recount. Ultimately, he did not prevail, losing to Elrich by 77 votes.

This time, with all votes tallied, Elrich leads Blair by 42 votes. Elrich currently has 55,473 votes (39.20%) and Blair has 55,431 votes (39.17%). The winner will face Reardon Sullivan, the winner of the Republican primary for county executive, in November. 

Blair’s campaign announced Sunday that he would request a full recount, after noting the Associated Press said the race was too close to call. Here’s a look at how this year’s recount will work, and a look back at the process in 2018.

How will this year’s recount work? 

According to state law, Blair has three days after the county Board of Elections certifies the election to request a recount. The county elections board is aiming to certify the primary results by Friday, according to spokesman Gilberto Zelaya.

Alysoun McLaughlin, the county’s acting election director, said Monday that county election workers need to complete state-required audits of the election, which is why the certification likely won’t happen until late Friday. A recount could tentatively start Aug. 18, she said.

State election officials extended the deadline to certify the primary election on Aug. 15, which would be three days after the county certifies its results. Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the state Board of Elections, said she still needed to talk to McLaughlin about any schedule for the recount — but emphasized that more details wouldn’t be known until Blair’s campaign files any petition. 

Before the results are certified, election workers need to make sure that the tens of thousands of mail-in ballots were handled properly, and that there was proper signage at polling places informing voters, candidates, and other observers about where to vote, and what they could and could not do, McLaughlin added.

She said that a “clear ballot audit” also needs to occur, in which a third-party contractor takes images of all the ballots and does its own tabulation — if there are any discrepancies, the local board needs to explain why that is.

“We don’t just say, ‘Scan the ballots and then we’re done,’ ” McLaughlin said. “We need to make sure our work is done accurately.”

Blair would not have to pay for a recount because state law says there is no cost to a requesting candidate if the vote margin is 0.25% or less. Blair is required to submit his recount petition to the same board office where he filed his certificate of candidacy, according to Zelaya. 

The four recount options, according to the state, are:

  • Option 1: A manual tabulation of printed reports from early voting, election day, and the mail-in and provisional ballot canvasses. Printed reports from precinct tabulators and high-speed scanners (if available) are examined and manually tabulated;
  • Option 2: A re-scan of voted paper ballots involved in the recount using precinct tabulators or a high-speed scanner (if available) to reproduce early voting, precinct or mail-in or provisional ballot canvass totals;
  • Option 3: A manual recount of voted paper ballots involved in the recount; and
  • Option 4: A manual recount of ballot images of voted ballots involved in the recount.

Aaron Kraut, a spokesman for the Blair campaign, declined to state which option Blair would choose of the four available options.

How long will a recount take?

It’s difficult to know how long the recount might take. According to state code, “the recount shall begin within 2 business days of receiving the petition,” and election officials must work at least eight hours for each day of the recount. Election workers may also choose to pause the recount on Sundays and holidays.

Given that Blair is requesting a full recount — versus a partial one in 2018 — it is likely the process will take multiple days.

The canvassing of mail-in and provisional ballots during this election spanned more than 10 days, not including calendar days when no canvassing occurred. Canvassing began July 21, two days after the July 19 primary election, and concluded Aug. 6. A remaining 34 ballots were examined Aug. 7, with nine ballots accepted and 25 rejected as “untimely,” the county Board of Elections wrote in a tweet on Sunday.

In total, elections workers examined and processed about 75,000 mail-in ballots and over 7,000 provisional ballots. Election officials said web delivery mail-in ballots took longer to canvass and process because election workers had to duplicate them by hand onto another copy of the ballot, which could then be tabulated. Roughly 15% of all mail-in ballots were web delivery, according to county election officials. 

Recount teams will not have to manually duplicate any ballots, but will have to review results from 14 early voting sites, more than 250 Election Day polling places and the mail-in and provisional ballots. 

McLaughlin said she didn’t know how long a recount would take. Only Board of Elections staff are allowed to conduct a recount, she said, and the county is looking at other jurisdictions to help if they’re able.

“It really depends on how many staff we’re able to borrow from other counties, but the appeal I am putting out to the other counties is asking for a three-day minimum [timeframe],” McLaughlin said. 

Charlson said that state board of elections staff have helped with recounts in the past, along with fellow local boards.

McLaughlin said she and colleagues are preparing for the most labor-intensive recount of the four options available, which would be a manual recount of all ballots that were cast. McLaughlin said election workers will need time to sort and batch the ballots that were counted in the Democratic primary — in the county executive race alone, more than 140,000 total ballots were cast.

The county will not have to pay to lease space because it will conduct the recount in the Germantown Recreation Center’s gym, McLaughlin said. It did not have to pay to lease space in the Montgomery College’s Germantown campus, she previously said. 

McLaughlin didn’t immediately have an estimate on how much the recount would cost, other than to say that elections board staff would be pulled from doing other work. 

“Everyone’s salary is different, and it’s the lost productivity during the day that is the real cost,” McLaughlin said.

Elrich-Blair matchup in 2018 also proved to be a close race

In both the 2018 and 2022 Democratic primary races for county executive, it was weeks before the candidates and voters knew who had appeared to win.

In 2018, the Democratic primary was held June 26. After early voting and Election Day precincts had reported their results, Elrich led Blair by 452 votes. But more than 8,500 Democratic absentee (the former term for mail-in) ballots and provisional votes still needed to be counted.

State transportation officials estimated that 81,000 Maryland voters were impacted by a “computer glitch that failed to update address or political party affiliation changes they made through the Motor Vehicle Administration,” Bethesda Beat reported. 

Thousands of more absentee ballots came through before the deadline, and Elrich was leading  by 80 votes as of early July – with 37,529 votes to Blair’s 37,449. After the election was certified, Elrich’s lead was 79 votes. 

Blair then requested a recount, which occurred on July 23, 2018, and was completed that day. Alysoun McLaughlin, the county’s acting election director, told Bethesda Beat earlier this month that the 2018 recount only involved the results from “selected precincts.” Those included the Potomac Community Recreation Center, one of the early voting centers, along with Election Day ballots at a Clarksburg polling place, Bethesda Beat reported

The recount showed Elrich had beaten Blair by 77 votes, 37,532 to 37,455.

After the recount, Blair declined to pursue a legal challenge, despite the problems with the state MVA, stating: “Obviously, it was a super tight, super close election. Now, it’s time for the Democratic Party to come together and start thinking about November.”