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After Pulling District 1 Ballots, Workers Begin Canvassing Ballots From Across Baltimore

City elections workers spent Thursday carefully separating City Council District 1 mail-in ballots from a mass of ballots from residents across the city at a hot warehouse in West Baltimore. The process delayed the counting of citywide mail-in ballots, which kicked off Friday morning.

A proofing error in the District 1 ballots rendered the initial results of the area’s Democratic council race between incumbent Zeke Cohen and challenger Paris Bienert and judge of the circuit court race unreliable. To attain accurate results, Baltimore City Board of Elections workers, working in teams of two, copied information from the original District 1 ballots by hand onto new ballots that can be accurately read by scanners. 

“City Council Zeke, no judges selected,” one worker said Tuesday as another double-checked and recorded results. “City Council Paris, no judges.” 

The Maryland Board of Elections blamed the District 1 error on its mail-in ballot vendor, SeaChange, a Minnesota firm. In a statement, the board said it flagged the problem to the vendor during a drafting process, but that the vendor sent the error-ridden ballots out to a portion of District 1 voters anyway. 


As the workers sorted through the ballots on Thursday, District 1 campaign staffers observed, including Bienert herself.


“I never expected to be in this situation,” Bienert said. “There's been a lot of unpredictable things that have come up through the course of this campaign and this and just this election season for all candidates in Baltimore City.”

As the coronavirus pandemic heightened in March, Gov. Hogan tasked the state board with Maryland’s first ever mail-in election. The election has seen a barrage of problems that have led some officials to call for elections head Linda Lamone’s resignation, including Lt. Gov Boyd Rutherford. 

Ballots to city voters arrived later than those sent to the rest of Maryland. Some residents never received them at all, but when they showed up to vote at the polls, they were told they already vote – and those few in-person polling places had hours-long lines. 

After those polls closed up at about 11:00 p.m. Tuesday night, the state elections board first posted preliminary elections results pulled from early mail-in ballots delivered before primary day. Then, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the board pulled the data entirely after realizing the error in District 1 ballots; the inaccurate results said Bienert was beating Cohen with more than 40 times the amount of votes than the incumbent had. The board did not explain the removal until hours later.  

Robbie Leonard, an attorney for Cohen’s campaign, watched the canvassing unfold on Thursday. 

“We don't think anybody should be put in this situation,” he said. “There's going to be another day and another time to figure out what went wrong and who's responsible for it. We want to make sure it doesn't happen again in November…. and we want the voters to know that our elections are done right.”

"If you're talking about results in general for the whole election, we're probably talking somewhere into next week, the end of next week." - Armstead Jones, Baltimore City Election Director

By the end of Thursday, elections workers had counted 3,662 ballots from District 1. Cohen came out on top with about 63 percent of the votes counted. 

Incomplete results as of Friday afternoon have former mayor Sheila Dixon leading the Democratic mayoral primary by 30.5 percent; City Council President Brandon Scott follows her at 24.7 percent while Mary Miller has 16.7 percent. 

Del. Nick Mosby has a solid lead in the city council president’s race at 39.5 percent; Councilwoman Shannon Sneed trails him at 27.4 percent while former Councilman Carl Stokes has 24.3 percent.

In the heated comptroller’s race, Councilman Bill Henry has an edge over longtime incumbent Joan Pratt; Henry has 51.6 percent while Pratt has 48.4 percent.

On Friday, the workers will continue to separate and canvass District 1 ballots and will begin to canvass ballots arriving to the warehouse from across the city. The city board of elections said it will post the unofficial results at the end of each canvassing day.  

Baltimore City Elections head Armstead Jones said the District 1 ballot error is not on his office and that he never had any direct communication with the ballot vendor.

“We had scanned 85,000 ballots approximately, and after that we had to pull out the district one ballot styles,” he said.  

The process has greatly slowed down the city’s overall election certification, the longtime city elections head said. 

“If you're talking about results in general for the whole election, we're probably talking somewhere into next week, the end of next week,” he said. “It could be later.” 

Armstead Jones said there are lessons to be learned from Tuesday and that his office will keep them in mind as November looms nearer. 

Earlier this spring, Maryland elections head Lamone asked Gov. Hogan to determine whether November’s election will be mail-in by mid-June. He has not yet decided.


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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