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November election could be another ‘mitigated success’ for voting — if stubborn Hogan would change his mind | COMMENTARY

Maryland conducted its first large-scale test of voting by mail, because of the public health threat from the coronavirus, during the April 28 special general election in the 7th Congressional District. The June statewide primary was conducted primarily by mail.
Maryland conducted its first large-scale test of voting by mail, because of the public health threat from the coronavirus, during the April 28 special general election in the 7th Congressional District. The June statewide primary was conducted primarily by mail. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the state’s June primary election an “unmitigated disaster,” invoking a classic cliché that blustery people pull from the rhetoric holster when they want to make something sound totally horrific. It suggests that the disaster was avoidable, too.

Call me (cliché warning) a glass-half-full guy, but, under the circumstances — a deadly pandemic that caused the election to be moved from April 28 to June 2 and to be conducted primarily by mail — wasn’t the June primary more like a “mitigated success”? Didn’t the changes instituted by the civil servants who stage our elections lead to a generally good outcome?

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I’m trying to be reasonable here. Please join me.

As we have been (cliché warning) in uncharted waters since the coronavirus infections started, everyone has had to scramble and adjust to how we do things. Because of the pandemic, Hogan wisely moved the election, and administrator Linda Lamone and her staff at the Maryland State Board of Elections hustled to come up with a new plan.

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And what happened?

There were problems, as you might expect with anything rolling out for the first time and under extraordinary circumstances. But let me (last cliché, I promise) bottom-line this for you:

Ballots were delayed, but about 95% of them were delivered to voters on or before May 30. People liked voting by mail, with about 97% of us returning our ballots through the U.S. Postal Service or by placing them in drop boxes throughout the state. While voters had to wait in lines at the few voting centers in each county, only 2.3% of almost 1.5 million people who voted chose that method. No one in line when a poll closed was unable to vote.

And most significantly — again, considering the circumstances — voter participation reached 41.8%. “In some jurisdictions, turnout exceeded the statewide turnout,” the board of elections said in a report last month. “For example, turnout in Baltimore City was 48% while turnout in Kent, Charles and Prince George’s counties was 46%. Several jurisdictions had higher turnout in the June 2 election than they did in the 2016 primary. These jurisdictions include Baltimore City (3% increase) and Calvert (1%), Cecil (7%), Charles (6%), Kent (4%), Montgomery (0.7%), and Prince George’s (9%) counties.”

I recognize that problems and delays occurred — some having to do with the Minnesota-based printer of the ballots — but an “unmitigated disaster”? Please. Anyone who has been involved in a business launch or any undertaking that required rapid readjustment would think the June election results were good, the problems limited and fixable.

Not Larry Hogan, and not his lieutenant governor, Boyd Rutherford. He called for Lamone’s resignation, and that immediately reminded me of a miserable little fiasco in Maryland political history, going back to the time of our previous Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich.

There was an attempt by the state elections board to oust Lamone in 2004 over issues so minor and petty — and having nothing to do with her competence — that the Anne Arundel County judge who presided at a hearing on the matter asked, “How is all of this in the public interest?” It wasn’t. The attempted ouster of Lamone ran contrary to a state law designed to protect the elections administrator from politics, and it carried the distinct odor of misogyny. Lamone prevailed in the end. She’s been on the job since 1997.

And now Rutherford, on light duty as lieutenant governor just five years, wants her gone?

Fortunately, that’s not happening any time soon. But Hogan keeps criticizing her. He sent a letter last week that used overwrought language — “massive failures,” “unmitigated disaster” — and generally suggested that, by not fully embracing his order to have a traditional election with 1,600 polling places open, Lamone was engaging in voter suppression, particularly of minorities. Imagine that: A Republican governor claiming concern about suppressing the vote.

But who’s making it harder to vote here? How could Hogan look at the results from June and decide that what we need in November, when health officials worry about a new wave of infections, is a pre-pandemic election?

Instead of just getting a mail-in ballot at home, as most of us did for the June primary, we have to ask for one online or fill out an absentee ballot form — an unnecessary step in the process.

Deciding not to wait for an absentee application in the mail — they are scheduled to be sent out by the end of the month and must be returned by Oct. 20 — I applied for one through the board of elections website. It took about 10 minutes. If you’ve been thinking about doing that, too, then do it today.

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I suggest it because Hogan seems as stubborn about this as he has been about anything since he took office. It would be great if the bipartisan elections board showed some backbone and told the governor that staffing 1,600 polling places is impossible, and that the best plan for November was the one we had for June, with a few extra voting centers in each jurisdiction.

It’s worth a try, though I can’t imagine Hogan would change his mind. When you’re thinking about running for president, and you’re getting used to the bright lights of national media, it helps to look decisive. And decisive works as long as your decision doesn’t turn into an unmitigated disaster.

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