The Maryland presidential primary election and associated down ballot races, including the three-way race for a Carroll County Circuit Court judgeship, is currently underway — via the mail.
Voters began receiving ballots weeks ago and all those registered should receive a ballot in the mail by Saturday, May 23, according to a media release from the Carroll County Board of Elections. Those who have not yet received a ballot can check online at voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/VoterSearch or by calling 410-386-2864 — voters must mail ballots postmarked no later than June 2, or drop them off in one of three secure drop box locations prior to 8 p.m. June 2.
Those are just some of the ways election officials are working to ensure an election originally planned to function as a mostly in-person affair at traditional polling places can be pulled off efficiently and securely with mail-in ballots on short notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The staff at the Carroll County Board of Elections are working tirelessly to make sure all elections run smoothly,” said Carroll County Elections Director Katherine Berry. “We are working around the clock right now to pick up ballots from the post office, receive the ballots so voters can see that the office got their ballots, prepare for and secure the drop boxes ... and prepare for limited in-person voting on June 2.”
But while there may be be perennial talk of problems with the security of vote-by-mail, there is little to support there being widespread issues, according to Michael Hamner, a professor in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland who studies elections.
“The evidence is on the side of, we can do this well, we can limit the risk of fraud,” he said.
While conducting a large vote-by mail operation may be new to most Maryland jurisdictions, five western states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — have long-running vote-by-mail programs, according to Hamner.
“These are places that have put the process into place over time, carefully, and to the best of my knowledge, there are not widespread reports of problems,” he said. “Voters in these states tend to like these systems.”
Voter turnout in Utah, for instance, has risen steadily since a vote-by-mail law was passed in 2012, leading to 52% voter turnout in 2018, two percentage points better than the national average and a high not seen in the state for 20 years, according to the Desert News.
But, Hamner said there are trade-offs in any election system, and voting by mail may offer certain vulnerabilities to those of malicious intent. For one, it is theoretically easier to conduct voter fraud by voting twice, using someone else’s identity, voting by mail than in-person voting, he said.
There is, however, little evidence to suggest such fraud is common or that it can influence elections in any systemic way, Hamner said, since it’s a difficult thing to scale; casting two voters for your preferred candidate instead of one doesn’t take you very far.
“There are some principled arguments that could support more or less restrictions, but as a practical matter there is very little room without co-opting an election official,” he said. “But if you co-opt an election official to commit a crime, you could do that with any system.”
Where vote-by mail might be more systemically vulnerable is if a person is able to take possession of large numbers of ballots, Hamner said, and either submit them fraudulently, or remove those votes from the system so they do not count.
There have been cases of “ballot harvesting,” Hamner notes, where someone collecting ballots from voters for submission has either been accused of acting fraudulently or has actually acted so.
And that is generally how the American legal system works, particularly when it comes to elections security, according to Hamner.
"One of the core parts of our system is that we are trusting on the front end and prosecuting on the back end when people violate that trust,” he said. Whether double voting or orchestrating some system collection of and fraud with absentee ballots, “there are severe penalties if you are caught.”
And vote-by mail brings even more legal scrutiny to bear on anyone hoping to conduct election fraud than otherwise, according to a statement by U.S. Postal Service Spokesperson Freda Sauter.
“All U.S. Mail is protected by more than 200 federal laws enforced by the Postal Inspection Service,” she wrote in an email, “one of the nation’s oldest law enforcement agencies.”
And it would be a mistake, Hamner said, to think elections officials are not themselves thinking constantly about the security of elections and how things could go wrong.
“They are always concerned about fraud,” he said. “That’s their job, it’s built in to what they do.”
In a statement about election security, the five members of the Carroll County Board of Elections, noted that the voter signature on mail-in ballots is an important security feature.
“The election system uses the exact same deterrent that the judicial system uses: penalty of perjury and the threat of jail time and fines for voting more than once,” they wrote. “When you sign the Oath on the envelope that accompanies your ballot you are swearing that you will comply with election laws, such as not voting twice in the same election.”
Additionally, the counting of ballots will be live streamed for those who wish to observe, according to Berry. The canvassing will begin at 9 a.m. May 21, and those interested should visit the Carroll County Board of Elections website at elections.carrollcountymd.gov and click on “canvass information” on the lower left of the screen.
There is one other category of issues that crop up during the election, Hamner noted, and it has nothing to do with fraud and more to do with vote-by mail being new to Maryland.
“There’s lots of room just for honest mistakes,” he said. “If I miss a signature and I’m sitting at home and I send it in, I am probably less likely to catch that than if I am at a polling place and I insert the ballot and the machine spits it back.”
Similarly, while some ballots will certainly be lost in the mail by accident, Hamner said, it’s also possible some people will forget to mail them out on time. Voter education is important, Hamner said, as Maryland has not had the time to do the work state’s like Utah did to prepare voters to ensure they knew how to properly fill out, sign, seal and return their ballots.”
In addition to the mail-in option, there are secure ballot drop boxes at the Westminster Senior and Community Center at 125 Stoner Ave., the Robert Moton Center at 300 S. Center St., and the South Carroll Swim Club at 1900 Liberty Road. Those drop boxes will be open to accept ballots 24 hours a day until 8 p.m on Tuesday, June 2.
There will be limited in-person voting from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 2 at two locations, the Westminster Senior Center and the South Carroll Swim Club. Same-day registration will be available at these locations, as will masks and hand sanitizers, as social distancing measures will be in force, according to the release, although voting with the ballot received in the mail is still preferred.
And while individual voters can educate themselves, Maryland election officials have also had some practice, both with absentee voters and with recent special elections, such as the April 28 special elections to fill the U.S. House seat for Maryland’s seventh district after the death of Congressman Elijah Cummings.
“Changing the election process is a challenge, but since we had three counties go through vote-by-mail with limited in-person voting in April, we have learned from them,” Carroll’s five-member Board of Elections wrote in a statement. “Maryland also had a very advanced absentee ballot process that easily transitioned into a vote by mail process.”
And there will be another learning experience for everyone on June 2, Hamner, and that has to do with patience and election results.