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Mail-only voting makes sense during coronavirus pandemic, and maybe beyond | COMMENTARY

Maryland officials consider a mail-only voting process for April's primary election, to avoid forcing people to congregate in public at the polls.
Maryland officials consider a mail-only voting process for April's primary election, to avoid forcing people to congregate in public at the polls. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 21 states allow some elections to be carried out entirely by mail. Four of them — Oregon (since 2000), Washington (2011), Colorado (2013) and Hawaii (2019) — allow all elections to be conducted by mail, while others limit mail elections by county or type, like special elections.

In fact, that’s generally how all-mail elections come to be: Some circumstance raises the need for them, and after a few smaller runs, they’re expanded because they work. Voters like the convenience, they often cost less, and several studies suggest they increase voter turnout — by as much as 12.5 points in Utah in 2016. And if anything should make the cut as a qualifying circumstance, coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, certainly should.

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The World Health Organization officially classified the virus spread, now in at least 114 countries worldwide, as a “pandemic” on Wednesday, based on “the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” according to a statement from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general. The pandemic label is a warning that further community spread is coming, and officials should prepare. Already, 130,000 cases have been confirmed around the globe, and 5,000 people have died from it.

That’s why it’s critical for Maryland officials to swiftly decide to hold a mail-only election for next month’s primary and how to do it. They should have done it weeks ago. Early voting is set for April 16th through 23rd, and Election Day is April 28th. There’s a strong chance “social distancing” could still be the norm by then, with businesses, schools and government agencies shut down or embracing telework models.

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Maryland law currently allows for mail-only elections during special elections that are not held concurrently with a regularly scheduled primary or general election (the special primary election held last month for candidates vying to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District would have qualified). But we wouldn’t need to change any laws to switch to all mail for the coming primary. Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency last week after announcing Maryland’s first confirmed case of coronavirus, which allows him to postpone elections if need be, or specify alternate voting means. Of course, doing it on the fly is not ideal, but lives are at stake; we’ve got to be prepared to take bold action at any point.

Here’s how all-mail elections generally work: Every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail. The person marks it, puts it in a “secrecy envelope or sleeve,” puts that inside a separate envelope for mailing, signs an affidavit on the outside and sends the whole thing back, or drops it off at a designated location. Simple, right?

Typically, there’s an opportunity for in-person voting in all-mail elections as well, for those who prefer that method or require it for some reason. But given the health concerns amid coronavirus, it’s unlikely Maryland would be able to adequately staff voting locations or even should. Election Day workers, much like the voters who most reliably turn out, are often older — the very population most at risk for serious complications from coronavirus.

Maryland voters do already have the ability to vote by mail and can (and should) request absentee ballots now, regardless of the state’s decision (If you have a state issued ID or driver’s license, you can both register to vote and sign up to have an absentee ballot mailed to you online here: elections.maryland.gov/voting/absentee.html; the registration deadline is April 7th, and ballot request April 21st).

One of the many significant lessons the coronavirus has imparted thus far is the importance of having solid, trustworthy leadership in times of crisis. And this is an important primary for Baltimore in particular, which is selecting a new mayor and City Council president. The city is overwhelmingly made up of Democrats, which means the primary winners in that party are extremely likely to ultimately win the the position in November’s general election. Voters will also make their choice for presidential nominees and many other political positions, including Cummings’ replacement in the short-term, and the party nominees for that spot in the general election.

Voters should be given every opportunity to cast their vote in this critical time without having to also risk their lives. All-mail voting makes absolute sense in a pandemic, and it may make sense outside of one, as well. Some study would need to be done to determine the potential for fraud or coercion, the financial costs, the effects of slow counting and the possible unequal effects on different populations, including those who don’t have consistent mailing addresses.

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

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