Maryland’s local election directors are urging the state to move to a mail-in only ballot system for the April 28 primary amid the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic.
“We are concerned about the potential for exposure of our election judges and voters to coronavirus at polling places on Election Day or at vote centers during early voting,” the local board of elections directors wrote Thursday in a letter to the state board. Given federal health officials’ guidance for people to avoid close contact, the directors “request instead that all voters be mailed an absentee ballot for this election."
But during a Friday morning conference call, Baltimore City Elections Board Director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. said, state officials told them to continue “moving forward as if the election is going to happen as it usually does.”
Linda Lamone, state administrator for the Maryland Board of Elections, said she could not comment on whether Maryland was considering postponing its primary.
Asked if voting by mail remained an option, Lamone said: “Well, yes, that’s what you all have been reporting for the last two days.”
Asked if a decision would be made by the end of the week, Lamone said she didn’t know.
Organizing a mail-only election less than seven weeks before the primary would be complicated and expensive. Local directors said a decision needs to be made “now.”
“A decision needs to be made within today or by Monday so everyone has a sense of direction on what they need to do to move forward and regroup,” Jones said. “Whatever we are asked to do, we will get it done.”
Louisiana became the first state Friday to postpone its primary because of the coronavirus.
Earlier this week, Maryland officials, including state Senate President Bill Ferguson, said they were in talks on a mail-in only election, should it become necessary in response to multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, said the governor has been working with the state elections board on “ways to minimize voter confusion and disruption on primary day.”
Hogan 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 specify alternate voting locations, specify alternate voting systems or even postpone elections.
Jones said he typically relies on hundreds of elderly judges to work the polls — the demographic of people being encouraged to avoid 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 Wednesday.
Several polling locations in central Maryland are at senior centers.
Baltimore voters are scheduled to vote April 28 in the city’s mayoral, City Council president and other races. Across Maryland, voters will pick nominees for president. 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 allows voters to cast absentee ballots without any stated reason, but voting by mail has never been mandatory.
Some advocates are concerned about moving to a mail-in only election so close to the primary.
“While we are of course deeply concerned about the coronavirus and the need to keep voters safe, we are equally worried that this late action in Maryland — just weeks before the primary — could disrupt voting,” said Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center in Washington, in a statement. “An abrupt change could end up leaving communities of color and other historically disadvantaged voters on the sidelines of our democracy.”
In the competitive and crowded Democratic mayoral primary field, candidates already have changed the way they’re campaigning, with some cancelling fundraisers and door-knocking efforts. Candidates say they are concerned about how COVID-19 could impact the election, though they have different ideas on how the state board should proceed.
Former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller called on Hogan to follow Louisiana’s lead and postpone the primary.
“Proceeding with an in-person election on April 28th could cause a decrease in turnout and also pose a serious risk to voters and the backbone of our electoral system, senior poll workers,” she said in a statement. “Proceeding on April 28th without them would cause serious disruptions.”
Miller said she’s concerned there’s not enough time to prepare for a mail-in only election, an unprecedented move in Maryland.
“Our state could open itself up to widespread voter fraud and also lower turnout due to the confusion and potential lack of communication to historically disadvantaged voters and communities,” she said.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, running to reclaim her position, does not support pushing the election back.
She said that if the state moves to holding a mail-in only primary, the election board would have to do an immense amount of educational outreach and assure people there are safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the election.
Dixon has been encouraging seniors to vote absentee this spring, for the sake of their health.
Former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith also opposed any delay.
“We don’t know when things will get better,” he said. “We don’t need to disrupt this process any more than it already will be.”
Former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said his campaign is ready to “roll with” whatever state officials decide.
“We are a local campaign in the middle of a global pandemic,” he said.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young echoed that the city will follow the state’s lead, while City Council President Brandon Scott’s campaign for mayor urged the creation of a “hybrid system” involving expanded early voting and absentee ballot “drop off.”