With 15 days remaining until the special general election for the 7th Congressional District, the Maryland Board of Elections reversed itself yet again Monday, clearing the way for limited in-person voting in April in spite of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Meeting for the second time this month and the third time in as many weeks, the board was sharply divided Monday on the issue of whether to offer any polling places for an election it is conducting largely by mail.
Ballots have been mailed to the nearly 500,000 eligible registered voters in the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. The board has asked voters to complete the ballots and return them by mail, using the postage-paid envelopes included. Voters also can bring them to drop boxes that have been ordered but not yet installed.
Now, based on a 2-2 vote Monday, voters who cannot vote by mail, including those with disabilities and those who do not receive ballots by mail, will have the option to vote in person on the April 28 election day.
Voters are choosing between Democrat Kweisi Mfume and Republican Kimberly Klacik to fill the rest of the term of the late U.S. Rep. Eljiah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who died in October.
The late change by the board reversed a unanimous decision in late March against offering any in-person voting for the special general election or the rescheduled June 2 presidential primary out of concern for public health and the health of poll workers.
The board received a stern warning from a state health official at the time that protective gear could not be guaranteed for election workers in the midst of the growing pandemic. As of Monday, the virus had killed 262 in the state and sickened more than 8,900.
After the board’s initial decision, voting rights advocates and advocates for the disabled weighed in, arguing that an election with no in-person option would violate federal law which mandates “independent” and “private” voting for those with disabilities. State Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones, both Democrats, also called for an in-person option.
A day before submitting a plan for the June 2 primary to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, the board changed its earlier decision and proposed an in-voting option for that primary day to the governor.
In accepting the board’s plan for June 2, Hogan issued an executive order that backed the Board of Elections into a corner regarding the special general election on April 28.
That order, issued Friday, said the special general election could be held without in-person voting only if the board submitted a document stating it wasn’t possible to offer voting centers “in a manner that mitigates and reduces a substantial threat to public safety or health." The document also had to explain how the election would comply with state and federal law.
That standard proved to be a sticking point for board members who met in executive session for nearly an hour Monday to receive legal advice before making their decision during a public conference call.
Board member Kelley Howells said the board can’t argue there is no way to mitigate the threat to public health when grocery stores have been taking measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, such as asking people to wear masks and limiting the flow of shoppers.
“The number of voters who are going to need these voting centers is so small, and yet for them the voting center is such a big deal,” she said. “Now, I feel stronger that we should do this.”
Board Vice President Patrick Hogan argued all district residents have had time to register to vote and receive a ballot via mail. Voters are allowed to ask for assistance in marking those ballots, he said, and disabled voters can request an online ballot that can be marked online.
“With those three conditions and given the severity of the pandemic, I personally believe we conduct the special general election without voting centers and do our best to comply with the Constitution and all federal law,” he said.
Michael Cogan, the board’s chairman, was audibly agitated by the position the governor put the board in. The issue is not the right to vote, but how many methods can be offered practicably and the risk of in-person voting, he said.
“The question then becomes, ‘How many deaths?’” Cogan asked. “What’s the upper limit on deaths for you to have this particular mode of voting? How many people can we afford to lose for you to have this particular mode of voting?”
Cogan abstained from voting. He indicated that he knew not allowing in-person voting would not comply with federal law but doesn’t like the health risks it engenders either.
Mike Ricci, the governor’s spokesman, tweeted Monday night: "Governor Hogan continues to strongly encourage Marylanders who can vote by mail to cast their ballot by mail.
“We are in the middle of a fight to slow the spread of a deadly virus, and the governor expects the Board to provide every assurance that it will not put people at risk.”
A special primary to choose Democratic and Republican nominees for the remainder of Cummings’ term, which ends next January, was held in February before the coronavirus outbreak reached Maryland.
Mfume is a Democratic former congressman who represented the district before Cummings. Klacik is the founder of a nonprofit organization and a Baltimore County Republican Central Committee member.
The June 2 primary for Maryland’s U.S. House seats will choose nominees to run in November to hold the seat for the two-year term beginning in 2021.
The locations for the April 28 in-person voting centers have not been finalized, said Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections.
Elections officials in the district initially expected to begin counting ballots Thursday, but deferred the start of that process until an order of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer is received, Charlson told the board. Additionally, officials at the local election boards did not expect to have enough returned ballots then to begin the work, she said.
A Minnesota vendor hired by Maryland Board of Elections mailed the ballots last week and they were expected to begin arriving Monday, Charlson said after the meeting.
The counting of votes will be livestreamed so the public can observe. A schedule for tallying will be posted on the websites of local election boards and on social media accounts, she said.