Vendor and State Board of Elections blame each other for Montgomery County ballot delays

Vendor, State Board of Elections blame each other for Montgomery ballot delays

Minnesota company says state officials were five days late in providing voter files

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Maryland elections officials and a Minnesota-based vendor are blaming each other for ballots that were mailed late.

Photo by Dan Schere

The Maryland State Board of Elections and a Minnesota-based vendor are blaming each other for ballots that were mailed late in Montgomery County and across the state for Tuesday’s primary.

For the past month, a number of voters in Montgomery County and Baltimore City have reported not receiving their ballots on time. The Maryland State Board of Elections has blamed the problems on SeaChange Print Innovations — a company the state hired to produce and mail the ballots.

The Board of Elections has alleged that the vendor didn’t keep to a promised schedule for mailing the ballots, while SeaChange says Maryland officials were late in providing information about registered voters.

Maryland’s primary was scheduled for April 28 and would have been held in person, but the date was moved to June 2 because of the COVID-19 health crisis. The primary is being conducted mostly by mail, but voters can go to the polls in person on Tuesday at a few sites in the county if they can’t vote by mail.

Maryland first contracted with SeaChange to produce 155,000 ballot packets for the April 28 primary, CEO Wendi Breuer wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat Thursday.

SeaChange then agreed on April 2 to produce 1.29 million ballots after the primary date and method of voting changed, Breuer wrote. She wrote that state officials said other vendors would produce the remaining 2.8 million ballots.

Breuer wrote that on April 10, state officials asked SeaChange to produce the remaining 2.8 million ballots because other vendors couldn’t handle the capacity. SeaChange agreed.

Breuer wrote that Maryland officials agreed to provide data files with voter information to SeaChange by April 21, but “system challenges” on the state’s end led to a five-day delay. On April 24, the vendor told state officials in an email that the “on-time delivery of these ballots was at-risk.”

By April 26, Breuer wrote, SeaChange had received the majority of files, including those for Montgomery County and Baltimore City. The delays in receiving the voter files, she wrote, “caused a delay at the back end of the project.”

The Baltimore Sun reported that SeaChange told state officials that 670,000 ballots could possibly be mailed late in Montgomery County.

By May 15, Breuer wrote, 85% of ballot packets were sent to the U.S. Postal Service, and the number rose to 99.9% last week. SeaChange, she wrote, was still receiving voter files through May 20 and the final 0.1% of ballots should have entered the postal stream by May 26.

“I won’t comment on anyone else’s statements, but I can confirm all the information I’ve shared here was reviewed with Maryland election officials in advance of sharing it with you,” Breuer wrote. “SeaChange’s processes are documented and verified, and SeaChange has been transparent throughout this matter. We were in constant contact with Maryland election officials every day of this process.”

SeaChange provides ballots for 20 states, including vote-by-mail in 10, Breuer wrote. The COVID-19 pandemic, she wrote, is “creating an unprecedented surge in vote-by-mail ballots, both in volume and turnaround times.”

“As primary dates shifted, lead times became very tight. The surge is testing many state election systems and technology, as well as technology and production capabilities of election service providers,” she wrote.

Nikki Charlson, the deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, said in an interview Friday that the state sent voter files to SeaChange later than planned. The vendor, she said, moved its schedule for mailing Montgomery County ballots by a few days, then didn’t meet its own revised schedule.

“They certainly took on more than was originally contracted,” Charlson said. “They agreed to do a complete vote-by-mail election. We put together a schedule, and they didn’t always comply with the schedule and didn’t give us accurate information for us to share with the public and candidates and other people.”

Charlson said that after the election, there will be a “full accounting” of the mail-in process.

“We’ve been just focusing on getting the ballots that they had out and getting the remaining voters their ballots,” she said.

Charlson said Friday that she didn’t know the specific number of voters in the state who had received their ballots, but the “vast majority” had.

Charlson encouraged anyone who still hadn’t received their ballot to call the State Board of Elections at 800-222-8683 or email absentee.sbe@maryland.gov.

Gilberto Zelaya, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said in an interview Thursday that as of that afternoon, 671,633 ballots had been mailed to voters in the county and so far 50,542 completed ballots had been processed. He said that should cover all registered voters in the county.

Anyone who didn’t receive a ballot was encouraged to visit 777vote.org to look up their voter information and see the status of their ballot.

A “ballot sent” status means the ballot is out for delivery, while a “ballot received” status means a completed ballot sent in by a voter has been scanned, he said.

After ballots are scanned, they are processed, incorporated into a canvass and counted. A voter’s ballot status can then change to “accepted,” “rejected” or “returned undeliverable.”

Zelaya said anyone in Montgomery County who sees their status as “rejected” or “returned undeliverable” should call the board of elections at 240-777-8500. The board will also try to track down those voters, he said.

“If, let’s say, a voter forgot to sign the voter affidavit [on the back of the envelope], we will do our due diligence to get a hold of that voter,” he said.

For more information on candidates running in Montgomery County and places to vote, visit Bethesda Beat’s 2020 Primary Voters Guide.

 Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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