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Judge: Maryland can start counting mail-in ballots earlier

A Maryland judge has granted an emergency petition filed by the Maryland State Board of Elections to enable the counting of mail-in ballots earlier than currently allowed by law

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A Maryland judge granted an emergency petition on Friday filed by the Maryland State Board of Elections to enable the counting of mail-in ballots earlier than they were during the state's July primary.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant granted the petition, which will allow local elections officials across the state to begin canvassing mail-in ballots on October 1. Bonifant wrote that with so many mail-in ballots, local boards of election would not be able to verify the vote count within 10 days of the general election as required.

“There is no doubt that the increased number of mail-in ballots will have an enormous affect on the process of this election," Bonifant wrote in his ruling. “Mandatory deadlines will be missed if the Court takes no action.”

The state elections board said the ruling provides election officials with additional time to canvass and tabulate mail-in ballots to ensure that all critical election-related deadlines established by law are met.

“It also enables elections officials to return to a well-established process of canvassing mail-in ballots prior to Election Day, which was allowed in the 2020 General Election," the board said in a statement.

Counting mail-in ballots before Election Day was allowed in 2020 during a state of emergency, when voting by mail increased due to the pandemic. But because the state of emergency expired, the state went back to a law that doesn't allow mail-in ballots to be counted until after Election Day.

The state elections board voted 4-0 last month to file the emergency petition in hopes of speeding up the vote count for mail-in ballots, which have become much more popular with voters in the state.

After the board's vote last month, board members said the continued expansion of mail-in balloting and the inability of the local boards of elections to count mail-in ballots before Election Day could have significant implications. For example, they said it could leave local, statewide, and even federal contests without certified results until late December 2022 or early January 2023.

The board also noted that Maryland is currently the only state in the union that forbids any kind of processing of mail-in ballots until after Election Day. That caused delays in determining winners in the state’s July primary.

About 345,230 mail-in ballots were received from around the state in the primary. That compares to 671,160 total votes cast in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and 295,068 total votes cast in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Pre-Election Day canvassing will be conducted in public on published dates, the board said. The results of pre-election canvasses will be withheld until the polls close on Election Day.

The General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, passed legislation this year to allow the earlier mail-in ballot count. But Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, saying he opposed other measures in the legislation while he supported the earlier vote count.

Hogan said he welcomed the judge's decision Friday.

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