The coronavirus pandemic has created hurdles for us all to clear in our daily lives. Now the governor has erected one impeding the path to the vote.
Gov. Larry Hogan — recognizing the risk to public health of an election staged in the usual way while COVID-19 is raging — made the right call when he directed Maryland elections officials to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the state for the June primary. Voters were able to exercise their franchise in relative safety, and with most people casting their ballots by mail, poll workers at in-person voting sites could practice containment protocols without gumming up the works.
The mostly mail-in election was not without its well-documented flaws. With the number of in-person polling sites limited, some voters spent more time in line than usual. Worse, some Baltimore voters did not receive their ballots in time.
But rather than learning from the experience and using the benefit of hindsight to improve the process, Hogan has abandoned it in favor of in-person voting, even though the coronavirus continues to sicken people at an alarming rate. The governor has decided that Maryland citizens who want to vote by mail in November’s general election must file an application with the state for a mail-in ballot.
This unnecessary added step will depress vote counts. Many busy citizens who don’t want to risk their health at the polls will either miss the memo about this change or forget about it. Others will put off completing the application or decide not to bother at all. Those who fail to obtain a mail-in ballot and decide to chance voting at a polling place — in a hotly contested presidential race sure to draw a crowd — could be putting themselves and others at risk.
The voters are just part of the equation. Local elections officials across the state — who as a group have urged Hogan to steer clear of the traditional model this year — estimate it will take 20,000 people to staff Maryland’s 1,700 polling sites. Most of these people are volunteers working for a stipend as a public service. Many are retirees, and their age puts them at greater risk for serious complications from COVID-19. It will likely take a significant bonus to coax these people into putting in a 14- or 15-hour day at polling sites during the pandemic.
These officials aren’t at all sure that they’ll have adequate staffing for Election Day. And if most of those volunteers show up to do their bit for democracy, the local officials remain skeptical that the state can come through on Hogan’s pledge to provide personal protective equipment for all of them.
Senior centers and churches normally used as polling places have shut their doors, and schools in many areas might well remain closed in the fall, leaving officials scrambling to find alternative sites. Hogan’s plan for November also presents the real possibility that a flood of last-minute applications for mail-in ballots could exceed the ability of elections officials to process and deliver them a timely fashion.
The governor's step backward creates overwhelming logistical headaches for local officials and a dire dilemma for thousands of Maryland voters. If he truly believes that a return to an emphasis on brick-and-mortar polling is the way to go, Hogan (who is not on the ballot himself this year) ought to sign up to volunteer as an election judge.
The writer is a Columbia resident and the secretary of Get Money Out-Maryland.