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Maryland officials considering preparations for election by mail in response to coronavirus outbreak

Preparations for handling coronavirus in Maryland

Maryland officials are in talks on how to hold a mail-in only election for the April 28 primary, should it become necessary in response to multiple confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the state.

Senate President Bill Ferguson said Wednesday that he has been in discussions with the state Board of Elections, but stressed that any changes he would propose to Maryland’s election would be done through bipartisan talks.

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“We would not be interested in moving anything forward unless it was unanimous,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, confirmed the governor has been working with the state elections board on “ways to minimize voter confusion and disruption on primary day.”

Meanwhile, Baltimore City Elections Board Director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. encouraged the “powers that be” to move to a mandatory mail-in election for the primary, which will include voting for candidates in the city’s mayoral, City Council president and other races, as well as a special election in the 7th Congressional District.

Jones said he normally relies on hundreds of elderly judges each Election Day — the very demographic of people being encouraged to avoid large crowds because of their heightened susceptibility to the coronavirus.

“I can’t take a chance and open up on Election Day and not have necessary staff to man the polling places,” Jones said. “I’m hoping that whatever decision is being thought about will happen within days. … We need to know what plan of action we need to take.”

Thus far, nine Marylanders have tested positive for COVID-19, including several people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. An additional person who lives in Montana and visited Anne Arundel County also has tested positive, Hogan announced Wednesday.

The state Board of Elections released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it is working closely with federal and state health agencies to monitor developments related to the virus.

“We appreciate that this is an evolving situation and are taking every appropriate step to deliver a safe and secure election for Maryland voters and election workers,” it said.

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Ferguson initially consulted with the state board about whether legislation was needed to conduct the election by mail, and briefed the Senate’s Finance Committee about those talks.

Afterward, however, Ferguson said he’d received word from the state attorney general’s office that legislation would not be needed. Hogan already has declared a “state of emergency” in Maryland due to the coronavirus. With that in place, state law allows the governor to issue a special proclamation to postpone elections, specify alternate voting locations or specify alternate voting systems.

In addition to the city primary in Baltimore, Maryland voters will pick nominees for president April 28. On the same day, citizens in the 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County, will select a replacement for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

Maryland already allows voters to cast absentee ballots without any stated reason, but voting by mail has never been mandatory.

The state elections board last week reminded voters, in light of growing coronavirus concerns, that anyone who prefers to vote from home can request an absentee ballot and they don’t need to give a reason to get one.

The logistics of organizing a mail-only election less than seven weeks before the primary would be complicated and expensive; Jones estimated it could cost “millions.” The state already has begun printing ballots for polling places and absentee voters.

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Jones said the city, which has among the largest number of active voters in the state, still is preparing for in-person voting, albeit with more hand sanitizer and wipes involved.

Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who is overseeing the city’s preparations for coronavirus while also running to keep his seat, said his “first thought is with the health and safety of our residents."

”We have to ensure a process where everyone is able to exercise their right to vote," he said in a statement. “My administration works closely with the state and we’ll continue to seek their guidance.”

City Council President Brandon Scott, who also is running for mayor, said it’s vital that this election “is not undermined at all.” No matter what course of action the state election board takes, Scott said, voters need to have quick and easy access to information. He noted that a switch to mail-in voting would be a “culture shock” for the city, which only four years ago saw its primary election results decertified due to administrative irregularities.

“I want us to have the most functional election we can have, in a safe way,” Scott said.

On the national level, federal officials are being asked to consider requiring states to offer voting by mail. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced a bill Wednesday that would give voters the option to vote by mail in the case of a widespread emergency.

All states allow voting by mail in some capacity, but some states limit the practice to senior citizens or those with specific reasons for why they cannot vote at their polling place. Wyden’s bill would allow Americans to vote by mail or drop-off ballots if 25% of states declared an emergency related to the coronavirus outbreak.

“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Wyden said in a statement.

Western states have led the way in moving to voting exclusively by mail as a matter of routine. Washington state, which has been among the states hardest hit by the virus and approved mail-only voting in 2011, held its primary Tuesday with only mail-in ballots. The state mailed ballot packets to each registered voter by Feb. 21, while also allowing voters to register until 8 p.m. on primary day.

For Tuesday’s primary, voters were asked not to lick the envelopes with their ballots as an additional precaution against the virus.

Mail-only voting substantially slows the tabulation of election results. Washington state still was counting primary votes as of Wednesday afternoon.

Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, said no states have moved yet to mail-only ballots in response to the coronavirus, but there is time for Maryland to make it happen before the primary date. Vendors, including some who have worked with other states, could print and deliver ballots to Maryland’s registered voters, she said.

McReynolds recommended that if Maryland goes forward with mail-in only voting, it should streamline the process by receiving ballots at a centralized location, while providing some drop boxes and other options for voters with accessibility issues.

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McReynolds estimated it would cost Maryland about $8 million if it provided ballots with prepaid postage to the state’s active registered voters, just over 4 million people.

But Maryland would need to act fast, she said.

“They’d have to make that decision no later than Friday to make that happen,” she cautioned.

Maryland lawmakers already were considering various measures to make absentee voting easier in future elections. Bills under consideration in the General Assembly would require absentee ballots to include return postage, as well as to change the term “absentee voting” to “mail-in voting.” Neither measure, if passed, would affect this year’s election.

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