Maryland is postponing its April 28 primary to June 2 and shifting the special Baltimore-area congressional election to mail-in ballots only — all part of an effort to allow citizens to vote without jeopardizing their health during the coronavirus outbreak.
Gov. Larry Hogan issued a proclamation Tuesday to move the date of the statewide primary, which includes the Baltimore mayor’s race, U.S. House contests and the presidential primary. Early voting will begin May 21 and run through May 28.
Four other states — Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Ohio — also postponed their presidential primaries because of the outbreak.
“I have two main priorities — keeping Marylanders safe and protecting their constitutional right to vote,” Hogan said at a news conference in Annapolis.
Hogan directed the State Board of Elections to develop a plan by April 3 to carry out the primary that addresses people’s concerns about the election and about preventing the further spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, a special election in the 7th Congressional District will be held using absentee ballots only. It is to fill the seat of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who represented parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
“While there are many valid reasons for unease and uncertainty right now, ensuring that the voices of Maryland citizens are heard shouldn’t be one of them,” the governor said.
The board said in a statement that it was working to carry out the governor’s order.
“Our highest priority is to deliver a safe election environment for voters and election workers while also ensuring the fundamental right to vote,” it said. “The actions announced today are critical to fulfilling that goal.”
Maryland allows citizens to vote by absentee ballots without any justification, but the state has never tried a mail-only ballot system.
Hogan said the board could not get mail-in ballots for the whole state prepared in time for April 28, but that it could be done for the one congressional district.
“It is imperative that the people of the 7th Congressional District have a voice in the House of Representatives and that Maryland has a full delegation representing our state in Congress,” the governor said.
The state elections board said it will mail absentee ballots to all eligible 7th District voters starting later this month. Voters returning ballots with their choice must have them postmarked on or before April 28.
For the June primary, the board said it was working with local elections boards to determine which regular polling places, including those at senior centers, will be available on the later date. Health experts have said older people are more vulnerable to the COVID-19 illness.
Candidates in Baltimore’s crowded Democratic mayoral field responded positively to the change in plans, while acknowledging they’ll have to modify spending plans and strategies.
Former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah called the governor’s decision “wise,” noting local leaders have a lot to focus on beyond politics.
Mayoral candidate T.J. Smith said he agreed with Hogan’s decision to postpone the primary, even if it made his campaign a little more difficult.
“It does us no good if we have an election and people are marginalized through no fault of their own,” he said. “This is probably the most prudent thing to do.”
Mayoral candidate Mary Miller said the election "is too important to rush the process. I applaud Governor Hogan for ensuring access to the ballot for all Maryland voters.”
"Postponing the election will allow the governor and our state and local officials the time and resources needed to focus full-time on the response to COVID-19,” said Miller, a former U.S. Treasury official.
Hogan previously declared a “state of emergency” in Maryland due to the coronavirus, which had dozens of confirmed cases in the state by Tuesday. With that declaration in place, Maryland law allowed the governor to issue a special proclamation to postpone elections and employ alternate voting systems. No legislative approval was necessary.
Maryland’s primary also includes nominations for the offices of Baltimore City Council president, city comptroller and council members.
The U.S. House primaries include the 7th District, in which a field of candidates — including Mfume, state Sen. Jill P. Carter and Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings — seek the Democratic nomination for a full, two-year term.
Carter said the election changes were the right thing to do.
“Our priority is the health and well-being of all Marylanders," she said. “We certainly would not want to have people coming out to vote to their peril."
When Hogan appeared Tuesday evening on MSNBC’s “MPT Daily," host Chuck Todd asked him if he was open to mail-only ballots for the next election, if that became necessary. Hogan reiterated that the state elections board wasn’t capable of getting a mail-in election for the full slate of races in the April primary, but that for the future, he was "open to all suggestions.”
The pandemic already had dramatically changed the mayoral race. State Sen. Mary Washington suspended her campaign Monday to focus on helping residents through the crisis, while other campaigns stopped knocking on doors and holding fundraisers and asked staff to telecommute.
Then, pushing the election back several months further roiled the already chaotic election season. For example, candidates already have spent money on literature advertising an April 28 primary.
“Every campaign right now is about to flood the printers,” said Marvin James, spokesman for the mayoral campaign of Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott.
Smith and his campaign team made decisions for the last two weeks with the possibility of a postponement in mind, the former Baltimore Police Department spokesman said.
He said it was fortunate that he had not yet spent money on television ads, and few of his campaign materials, save some banners, have the former primary date on them.
Former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon said the new date doesn’t change her strategy or messaging. Her campaign already had adapted how it was speaking to residents during the outbreak, she said.
The campaign of Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is still working to assess the new landscape, campaign spokesman Myles Handy said. The mayor held an in-person fundraiser last week, but has since called off such events.
“Do we plan on going back up with a full paid media strategy before the election? Yeah. But I can’t tell you when that is,” Handy said. “We’re not really campaigning much right now. We’re really just reminding people to be safe, and we’ll worry about the politics later on, when things are more clear.”
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said the delay will be harder to weather for candidates running grassroots campaigns. They will be unable to keep getting their message out via canvassing and public forums.
The candidates with loaded coffers — including Miller, Scott, Vignarajah and Young — could benefit from the extra time by spreading their message to viewers’ screens at home.
“It’s really going to advantage people who can raise money and continue to publicize their campaign,” Hartley said.
Vignarajah declined to discuss specific changes to campaign strategy but said his campaign is well-resourced.
“It’s going to call for creativity and resources,” he said. “We have both.”
James said the Scott campaign will keep spreading its message and rolling out policy, albeit in virtual settings.
“We just have to now reallocate resources to extend our voter engagement until June,” he said.
Dixon said she expected the extended campaign to cause financial strain for all candidates, but the field of candidates needs to remember the greater financial hardship the virus is causing workers and businesses.
“We’re going to be sensitive to all of that,” she said.
The postponed primary also extends the time current elected officials in the race will be judged on their performance in the health crisis. Young has issued orders aimed at reducing the spread and impact of the coronavirus in Baltimore, including halting evictions and turning recreation centers into food distribution hubs.
“If they can do a good job,” Hartley said, “they may show leadership to the public, who will want to keep them around. But if it goes wrong, they will either — legitimately or not legitimately — get all the blame.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.