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Md. primary: We must learn from election failures | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City residents line up 15 minutes before the polls opened at Northwood Elementary on Tuesday, June 2.
Baltimore City residents line up 15 minutes before the polls opened at Northwood Elementary on Tuesday, June 2. (Jerry Jackson)

The dates on the vote-by-mail ballots were wrong. Many were late to be mailed to voters, particularly in Baltimore City and in Montgomery County. The Maryland State Board of Elections blamed an out-of-state vendor, SeaChange Print Innovations, for the delay and for misrepresenting the timetable. SeaChange has pointed its finger at the elections board for computer snafus. Meanwhile, some households received multiple ballots addressed to people who hadn’t lived there in years.

As elections go, Maryland’s June 2 primary was as rocky, at least in its basic mechanics, as any the state has experienced in recent memory. It was particularly unfortunate that Baltimore of all places was plagued with late ballots given that the city’s mayoral primary is probably the most meaningful choice voters anywhere in the state were called to make. And the morass only contributes to the mistaken view — promoted most keenly by President Donald Trump in recent weeks — that mail-in voting is an invitation to fraud and abuse. It isn’t, but we can hardly blame anyone whose trust might be shaken right now.

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That’s why we call on the presiding officers of the Maryland General Assembly to launch a formal bipartisan review of how the 2020 Maryland primary election was conducted and report on recommendations on how the procedure can be improved in time the November general election. Given the importance of public faith in the elections process, this should be an obvious call. And the recent choice by House Speaker Adrienne Jones to review issues of police accountability in wake of the death of George Floyd in the hands of police in Minneapolis sets the standard for such oversight.

That’s not to suggest there’s been wrongdoing by the Maryland State Board of Elections. There are two factors that obviously made this year’s primary unusual. The first is the coronavirus pandemic. Because of the stay-at-home orders meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Larry Hogan wisely chose to postpone the primary originally scheduled for April 28 and to conduct the election mostly by mail. That not only fundamentally changed the way the state conducts its voting, it provided authorities with a too-brief timetable to make the switchover. The second is this ongoing dispute with SeaChange, and that alone deserves additional scrutiny from lawmakers if only to determine exactly who was at fault.

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Yet it’s been curious that there have been so few complaints heard from Annapolis while all this was happening — at least publicly. Perhaps this was simply because no one in state government wanted to make matters worse. And perhaps elected leaders recognized the unusual circumstances and allowed for some reasonable level of disorder. But Governor Hogan, House Speaker Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson ought to understand that not receiving a ballot until a week or more after it was promised, finding the ballot has mistaken information and then following a novel procedure of returning that ballot by mail or drop box (instead of in-person voting), can erode one’s faith in the ability of state government to conduct an election. A little transparency would do wonders toward reassuring Marylanders that everything was done to the highest standard possible. Or, if it wasn’t, that the matter won’t be glossed over.

And while they are at it, lawmakers would do well to ask questions about voter fraud. We suspect, as numerous studies have shown, that there will be precious little of it discovered in the Maryland primary. But given the caterwaul coming out of the White House, some further review would be prudent. Much like Ellen Sauerbrey’s claims in the 1994 governor’s race of widespread voter fraud that, when reviewed in court, proved incidents of sloppiness but not of criminal conduct, it’s easy to make the conspiracy charge, but rarely does it bear out. Elections, like every other human activity, are subject to mistakes.

Mail-in voting is not going away. The pandemic is likely to continue through the fall and may even worsen in a second wave if the 1918 parallel continues. That places an uncommon burden on state government to prove its up to the job of conducting a general election quite unlike any other. At the very least, the board needs to prove they have learned from what went wrong the first time around.

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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