In Rockville’s First Vote-by-Mail Election, Record Participation Was a Challenge
Voter turnout doubled, delaying results until early the next morning
Canvassers volunteering for the Rockville city election worked until 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday to process more than a thousand same-day ballots.
Photo by Kate Masters
At Bar Louie in downtown Rockville, state election results from Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi flashed across two flat-screen TVs, well before a slate of mayor and council candidates learned the results of their own local elections.
They were gathered at the restaurant on Tuesday for a watch party to follow the outcome of their own races.
By 11 p.m., the party was winding down and there were no local results in sight. Clark Reed, chairman of the Team Rockville campaign, gave a final update on the progress of the election, telling candidates that the count was expected “to go long into the night.”
A few streets over, candidates from the opposing Rockville Forward slate were shutting down their own watch party at Giuseppi’s Pizza, filing home for sleep or to monitor the results online.
Many candidates had gone to bed by the time the races were called at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
The city had accomplished a historic achievement, nearly doubling voter turnout in the first vote-by-mail election in Maryland. But the counting process, with a little more than a dozen canvassers hand-verifying thousands of same-day ballots, underscored the difficulties of a mail-in election without a system specifically designed for the task.
“I think it’s fair to say that any significant vote-by-mail system is going to require some modifications,” said Alysoun McLaughlin, deputy director of the county’s Board of Elections, who oversaw Tuesday’s count at the board’s offices in Gaithersburg. “The efficiency of the process is something the city, the county, and the state will need to look at, in terms of processing that number of ballots in such a short amount of time.”
Incumbent Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton defeated Councilwoman Virginia Onley to win her third term. When it came to deciding four City Council seats, voters split their choices among two competing slates.
Two winners were incumbent Beryl Feinberg and newcomer Monique Ashton, who ran on a “Rockville Forward” slate with Donnell Newton. The other two winners were incumbent Mark Pierzchala and newcomer David Myles, who were aligned with Onley as part of “Team Rockville.”
The city’s success in increasing voter turnout ended up throwing a wrench in the gears of ballot processing. Vote-by-mail is appealing largely because of its flexibility, McLaughlin said, offering residents a variety of ways to vote.
Voters in Rockville could mail their ballots back, or slip them into one of the locked drop-off boxes stationed across the city. They could also register on Election Day and vote in person at City Hall.
The city distributed roughly 39,500 ballots before Election Day on Nov. 5, spokeswoman Marylou Berg said, and began transporting them to Gaithersburg for processing as they arrived.
But a large number of residents — more than the city anticipated — voted in person or waited until Election Day to turn in their ballots.
Around 10,000 ballots came in before Tuesday, according to Berg. By the end of the day, the city received a total of 12,213 ballots, not counting provisional ballots.
“We had a really heavy turnout on Tuesday, particularly in the last couple of hours,” Berg said.
That became a challenge as the city went to count the final ballots in Gaithersburg. Other localities that adopt vote-by-mail systems often adapt their ballot-counting practices specifically for mail-in votes, which require added layers of verification.
In King County, Washington, one of the largest local jurisdictions to convert to vote-by-mail, officials use an automated system with signature verification software and machinery that can sort up to 24,000 ballots an hour. Other areas close their polls at noon, giving officials more time to process same-day ballots or recruit large groups of volunteers to speed up the process.
For Rockville’s first vote-by-mail election, city officials were relying on the same system that the county uses to process absentee ballots — a labor-intensive procedure usually stretched over 10 days.
Officials had to count every envelope that came in the door and batch them into stacks of 50 before the “deflapping” process, when every ballot was opened and counted again to ensure no votes were lost.
Then, every ballot was manually verified through a state-maintained voter registration system to create a record of the vote, preventing duplication and ensuring that every voter was registered in Rockville.
After that, the canvassers came in, removing ballots from their envelopes, flipping them over, and reviewing them for any mistakes that would invalidate the vote or prevent them from being read by the electronic scanner. Only then were the ballots resorted, recounted, and sent to be scanned, all before the final results were tabulated.
The verification process alone took approximately an hour and a half for a batch of 50 ballots, according to another county elections official who oversaw the process.
For candidates and city officials, increased voter turnout was overwhelmingly positive. But implementing a vote-by-mail system also dramatically raised the costs of the election and presented new challenges for counting same-day ballots.
The city is still gathering statistics from the election and plans to issue a final report on its successes and failures, City Clerk Sara Taylor-Ferrell has said.
The outcome will have broader implications for the adoption of vote-by-mail in Maryland. County legislators have expressed an interest in the outcome of the Rockville election, and the city was shadowed by several other municipalities, including Gaithersburg and Hyattsville. Officials with the U.S. Postal Service, including the homeland security coordinator for the UPS Inspections Service, also observed the election,.
“Ultimately, there’s a lot to be said for giving voters that choice,” McLaughlin said. “Systems can be revised, but increasing turnout is always a real challenge.”