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400 Harford election judges opt out of November election due to coronavirus fears; could result in longer lines at polling places

Election official Martha Murillo carefully wipes down a voting station during a slow few moments during the Maryland primary election June 2 at the McFaul Center in Bel Air. Election officials wore masks and handed out masks to those who needed. The check in stations also were equipped with large plexiglass window to keep officials and voters safe.
Election official Martha Murillo carefully wipes down a voting station during a slow few moments during the Maryland primary election June 2 at the McFaul Center in Bel Air. Election officials wore masks and handed out masks to those who needed. The check in stations also were equipped with large plexiglass window to keep officials and voters safe. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Harford County’s Board of Elections has slightly more half as many of the judges as it typically needs for an in-person election, officials said Wednesday.

Four-hundred judges have decided not to return for the November 2020 presidential election as the coronavirus pandemic continues and election judges opt out for fear of infection, Kimberley Slusar, the acting elections director of the Harford County Board of Elections wrote in an email.

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The county needs 816 election judges for in-person elections, and fewer would mean longer lines at its 63 polling places and four early voting centers. Election judges are generally older — 662 judges on record in Harford are at least 60 years old — which has evinced fear of coronavirus vulnerability among election officials in the state, Slusar wrote.

Sixty-three is the usual number of polling places opened in the county, and Slusar wrote that the local board is sticking to that number despite the reduction in available personnel.

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As of Wednesday, there were 416 election judges available to man the polling places on election day. Harford County’s board fields daily calls expressing worries about the safety of the judges and voters who will report to polling places throughout the county on Nov. 3.

The board acknowledges that older judges would be at higher risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19, but Slusar and Maggie Mundle, who trains Harford election judges, wrote in an email, that the board “would have to defer to the Health Department for more information on the risk of contracting coronavirus.”

Across the state, election judges are reneging on their election day commitments, and more are expected to decline to volunteer, according to a memo from the Maryland Association of Election Officials circulated at the state Board of Elections’ Wednesday meeting. As of that memo’s creation, local boards of elections were short 14,832 total election judges, it states.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the state board tabled a discussion on consolidating voting sites in Harford County and other jurisdictions until its next meeting Friday.

According to a July 24 letter to Gov. Larry Hogan from the association, 13,970 election judge positions across the state were not filled. That shortage is insurmountable, the letter states, unless polling places are consolidated.

“The [local boards of election] will not be able to make up for the Election Judge short-fall,” the letter states. “The only recourse for local Election Boards will be to consolidate polling places in order to manage in-person voting with the available Election Judge resources.”

At Wednesday’s meeting of the state board, president of the association David Garreis said election judge availability is a serious deficiency. The association, he said, also believed the situation would only get worse and “election judges will begin to quit en-masse.”

The association, through Garreis, suggested moving the mail-in voting application deadline back to two weeks before election day in anticipation of large demand for mail-in applications. It also encouraged employing voting centers, using and equipping the largest buildings in jurisdictions for voting.

Currently, polling places in Harford County are being mapped out to comply with social distancing guidelines, Harford’s board said, but the polling places will take other steps to keep visitors and workers safe.

“Everyone must wear a mask and will be given hand sanitizer upon entrance to the polling place. Each voter will receive a pen they will use the entire time they are in the polling place. Judges will be wearing a face shield and masks. The equipment, supplies, and area will be thoroughly cleaned periodically,” Slusar and Mundle wrote.

Under Maryland law, each polling place must be staffed by at least four judges unless a given precinct is smaller than 200 registered voters.

County residents can also apply for a mail-in ballot, the board’s website states, but mail-in ballots faced significant logistical challenges in the 2020 presidential primary.

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In a terse letter to State Election Administrator Linda Lamone on Aug. 3, Hogan characterized the primary as “an unmitigated disaster,” marked by Marylanders receiving late and incorrect ballots — if any — and waiting in long lines at few polling stations.

Almost a month before the letter was sent, Hogan directed Lamone and the state board of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered Maryland voter, which the board has not done, the letter states. Because his directive was not heeded, Hogan gave the board and Lamone 48 hours to explain why the applications were not mailed and provide a plan on how to conduct the November election, “including the minimum number of polling places that you will be able to open in each county.”

In a response dated Aug. 4, Lamone said local boards of election recommended the applications be sent out in mid- to late-August. The first mailing will occur on Aug 24, she said, and end no later than Aug. 31. The state board is also searching for a data center to help process the number of returns; neither the state or local boards of elections “have the capacity to process the significant number of forms we expect to receive,” she wrote.

Harford County’s board of elections is still searching for more judges; there is no deadline on applying, which can be done on the board’s website. The organization has not seen much interest in becoming an election judge among young people. Election judges are paid $200 a day and compensated $75 for training, Slusar said.

As of June 30, there were 185,973 active and registered voters in Harford County, according to the board’s data.

On Wednesday, 572 new coronavirus infections were reported in the state, and six people died. In total, the virus has sickened 92,426 Marylanders and killed 3,402. Harford County has seen 1,878 cases of the virus, corresponding to 66 confirmed and three probable deaths, according to figures from the Maryland Department of Health.

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