By Christine Zhu, Capital News Service
It took 36 days after the 2022 primary election to declare incumbent Marc Elrich as the Democratic nominee for Montgomery County Executive.
Though Election Day occurred on July 19, the Montgomery County Board of Elections didn’t certify the results until Aug. 24. Elrich defeated challenger David Blair by 32 votes, an even slimmer margin than the 77-vote difference during their previous battle in 2018.
In those 36 days, canvassers counted thousands of ballots — escalated by a recount — while about 1 million residents waited to find out who their next county executive would be in the heavily-Democratic area.
The delay came in part because then-Gov. Larry Hogan, R, vetoed legislation that would have allowed precincts to count mail-in ballots before Election Day.
Now there’s a new Democratic governor and new legislation from Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery. The upper chamber passed the new version of the bill on Tuesday. If it reaches the governor’s desk, Wes Moore will likely sign it into law.
SB 379 is one of eight pieces of legislation in Kagan’s election reform package designed to fix these scenarios.
Almost 70,000 people voted by mail-in or provisional ballot in the race, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Nikki Tyree, executive director of the Maryland League of Women Voters chapter, said voters expect to know results on election night.
“When that doesn’t happen, it’s just that the trust really, really breaks down,” she told Capital News Service.
SB 379 would require county elections boards to begin processing mail-in ballots eight business days before the start of early voting.
Small counties can request a waiver if they don’t expect a high volume of absentee votes, but the larger jurisdictions that receive thousands of mail-in ballots will get a jump on the workload to produce swift results.
“They need to start processing them early so that we can get our election results in a timely manner,” Kagan told Capital News Service.
During the 2022 general election, more than 540,000 Marylanders voted by mail, with Montgomery County receiving the most absentee ballots.
Two of the other bills have also passed the Senate and are pending approval from the House Ways and Means Committee.
One bill, SB 339, revamps the recount process by requiring local elections boards to manually count duplicate ballots after a review. The other, SB 863, regulates the state elections administrator’s removal from office.
SB 111, which would apply campaign finance requirements to draft and exploratory committees, passed second reading in the Senate on Wednesday.
The remaining bills have just a few days to pass the Senate before the crossover deadline — the last day for bills to reach the opposite chamber — on Monday.
Maryland has closed primaries, meaning only voters registered with the Democratic or Republican parties can cast their ballots for partisan races in the primary election. Within those races, they can only select candidates running under their party banner.
SB 39 would allow unaffiliated voters to register with a party up until the day before early voting begins.
“It’s just another way to give voters as much access as possible to the ballot,” Tyree said.
SB 176 would try to solve another kind of election maneuver.
In April 2022, then-Del. Al Carr, D-Montgomery, withdrew his reelection bid just hours before the filing deadline, leaving two Democrats and one Republican in the race for three District 18 House seats in a blue stronghold.
With no other candidates prepared to file on such short notice, the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee appointed activist Aaron Kaufman to fill the third spot on that party’s ballot.
Kaufman easily won the election and now serves as a freshman delegate. But Carr’s move prompted outrage from party leaders and community members.
SB 176 would require the state elections board to extend the primary election filing deadline in situations where there are fewer candidates for a political party than the number of nominations allowed for the party.
The issue of party appointments also is getting attention this year. MoCo360 reported that the Montgomery County Democratic Party Central Committee has selected more than a third of the delegation’s current seats.
That percentage will soon increase: Del. Kirill Reznik announced his retirement from the House, effective next Tuesday, in order to join the Moore administration.
The move creates a vacancy in District 39, along with the current opening in District 16 — Del. Ariana Kelly was appointed to the Senate after Moore nominated then-Sen. Susan Lee as his secretary of state.
“We live in a democracy and whenever we can, voters should have the opportunity to choose their elected officials,” Kagan told Capital News Service.
Other lawmakers have proposed election reform legislation as well.
Del. Jessica Feldmark, D-Howard, introduced a bill combating errors on mail-in and provisional ballots.
Republicans suggested amendments mandating additional identification for absentee voters. The Democratic supermajority swiftly rejected them and voted to pass the bill through the House on Friday.
Kaufman, who has cerebral palsy, noted the barriers that come about with requirements such as signature verification.
“I am one of those disabled voters the gentlelady from Howard County is talking about, and as a result of my disability, my handwriting is illegible,” he said on the floor last Wednesday. “Due to my fatigue and ongoing fine motor issues, on any given day my signature looks different.”