The Worcester Bureau of Investigation officers placed empty ballot envelopes into evidence bags and sealed them with red tape, after county election officials tallied the votes on the ballots they had contained.
Members of the Board of Elections wore surgical gloves while counting all of the absentee ballots and separately counted ballots from District 2, which stretches from the outskirts of Berlin to Pocomoke City, covering mostly unincorporated areas of Worcester County.
Worcester County State's Attorney Joel Todd said he was "made aware" Sept. 10 of a "potential issue" with absentee ballots cast by voters in District 2. He requested the election board have staffers handle absentee ballots with surgical gloves so as not to affect their evidentiary value.
Todd said the investigation is isolated to District 2 absentee ballots, and he has "no reason to believe the Board of Elections has done anything wrong."
The Office of the State Prosecutor, not the Worcester State's Attorney's Office, is leading the investigation, Todd said. The chief investigator with the state prosecutor's office, Jim Cabezas, declined to comment.
Jeffrey Cropper, an attorney for the county Board of Elections, said he could not comment on the substance of the complaint or who made it.
Two candidates' names appeared only on District 2 ballots, and not in other districts: County Commissioner incumbent James Purnell and challenger Edward S. Lee, both Democrats. The race between them turned out to be the only one in Worcester in which one candidate led among ballots cast in person, but another candidate leads among absentee votes counted so far.
After early voting and Election Day ballots were cast, Purnell held a comfortable lead, with 525 votes to Lee's 250 votes. Lee, the former head of the Worcester County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had won just 32 percent of votes cast as of Tuesday night.
But absentee voters gave much more support to Lee, giving him 76 percent of their votes. Still, the additional 87 absentee votes for Lee and 27 absentee votes for Purnell didn't knock Purnell off the top spot; Purnell still leads 552-337. No Republican ran for commissioner in the district.
Only 184 absentee ballots sent out to Worcester voters in all seven election districts remain unreturned. Any more absentee ballots received in the mail by 10 a.m. Sept. 22 will be counted that day, along with provisional ballots used for in-person voting. Election officials must certify the results no later than Sept. 24.
Lee, asked to comment, said: "I have no comment at this time. You're telling me something I don't know about and have to look into."
Purnell, in a brief interview, said: "I hope it's not true. It looks bad on the district."
For statewide Maryland elections, people voting absentee can have someone pick up a blank ballot on their behalf, help them fill it out and also turn it in, as long as a "designation of agent" form is filled out. The voter's assistant can't be a candidate on the ballot, the voter's employer or an officer of the voter's union.
In two recent Worcester County municipal elections, candidates won seats when their support among absentee voters skyrocketed compared to the ratio of votes cast in person. In April 2009, Pocomoke City Council candidate Tracey Cottman split the in-person vote with candidate Stephanie Burke at 58 votes apiece, but won the seat on the strength of her 178 absentee votes to Burke's 4 votes. A special investigation of the vote by Todd's office found no wrongdoing by any candidate but urged the town to stop the practice of individually numbering absentee ballots and their envelopes, making it possible to name who cast which ballot. The investigation also found the town's own Election Board didn't keep an accurate list of voters.
Todd's report specifically cleared Lee, who supported Cottman's candidacy, of any wrongdoing in the 2009 Pocomoke election, saying Lee "was not and is not the 'subject' of this investigation." A blog post published by Burke claimed Lee was a subject of it.
In May 2009, resident David Suznavick said the two Snow Hill candidates, Rebecca Bowman and Gerald Shockley, handed in dozens of voters' sealed absentee ballot envelopes for them, prompting Suznavick to ask the Circuit Court to invalidate the election. A judge declined to do so, saying Snow Hill's election laws didn't prohibit what the candidates did.