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Election judges in critically short supply: Return to mail-in voting | COMMENTARY

Voters line up at Northwood Elementary before the polls open for the primary election Tuesday, June 2, 2020 in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
Voters line up at Northwood Elementary before the polls open for the primary election Tuesday, June 2, 2020 in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP) (Jerry Jackson/AP)

If Gov. Larry Hogan can tear himself away from the weighty duties of promoting his newly-released autobiography this week, he might want to take note of what’s happening in Howard County where poll workers are in a short supply reminiscent of the supermarket bathroom tissue aisle in the early days of the pandemic. To suggest matters have grown desperate only understates the case. Even with three months to go before the general election, officials in Maryland’s most affluent county (as measured by median household income) says it’s impossible for them to open all 90 of Howard’s polling places on Nov. 3. Instead, the election board is going with 35, less than half the norm. And even that might not be sustainable.

The problem is that Howard County isn’t the exception, although it’s probably better equipped to deal with this dilemma than most. Across Maryland, local election boards are recognizing that they’ve got a serious problem. In Baltimore County, for example, the number of polling places may shrink by two-thirds. The same in Carroll County. It boils down to this: There’s a COVID-19 pandemic going on and the folks who normally serve as election judges aren’t willing to put themselves in danger. Perhaps this is because many are over 50 years old and have been identified at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus. Efforts to attract younger volunteers — even offering government employees time off to work at the polls — are not expected to help much. Who knew that the threat of serious illness would cause such a reaction? Here’s a hint: Just about everyone who has run elections in the past.

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We don’t want to be the first to say we told you so but only because that honor should actually go to the Maryland Association of Election Officials, the nonpartisan organization that in June sent a letter to Governor Hogan and legislative leaders warning them of this exact problem. A “normal” election was not possible, MAEO President David Garreis wrote suggesting that relying more heavily on mail-in ballots would be a far more sensible approach. Alas, the governor didn’t see it that way. Instead, he called for that impossible normal election — opening all polling places and, instead of sending every voter in Maryland a mail-in ballot, sending every voter an application for a mail-in ballot instead.

Opening more polling places than the minimal number available in the June 2 primary surely makes some sense. It should reduce the dangerous crowding that took place. But making it substantially more difficult to vote by mail? That’s the provision that continues to have us stumped. Governor Hogan is correct in his criticism that the rushed primary election saw a lot of ballots sent to wrong addresses (or not sent at all) but he neglects to observe that the system allowed a record high participation in the vote while reducing the potential for COVID-19 exposure. We need more people to mail their ballots and fewer to show up at the polls. Making it more difficult to acquire a ballot works strongly against that purpose.

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There’s still time for Mr. Hogan to change course and for the Maryland Board of Elections to run the general like there was a pandemic going on. Even the sloppily-run primary revealed no significant security risk or uptick in voter fraud, as much as Republicans, and especially President Donald Trump, like to toss that vote-suppressing red herring around. Five states already conduct their voting entirely by mail. The District of Columbia will be sending ballots to voters as Maryland did in the primary. So will California. It’s a far more sensible approach than sending out those applications that may or may not be returned. Public safety ought to be the highest concern here. Why compromise it when it’s not absolutely necessary? But also, why put up barriers to voting in an election that many Americans have passionate feelings about? Governor Hogan writes in his book that he is “still standing.” Voters deserve to be able to make that claim post-election as well. There’s still time (perhaps two weeks of it) for him to reverse course and advocate that mail-in ballots and not just applications be sent to every registered voter in Maryland. The clock is ticking.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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