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Maryland should not hold the November election on pre-pandemic terms | COMMENTARY

Annie Williams, right, stands in line to vote at one of six in-person voting centers in Baltimore. After problems in Maryland's mostly mail-in primary last month, Gov. Larry Hogan directed state elections officials on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, to conduct the November election under more traditional standards. Critics point out that his decision makes it more difficult for people to vote by mail or by drop-off ballot, increasing the likelihood of coronavirus transmission at polling places.
Annie Williams, right, stands in line to vote at one of six in-person voting centers in Baltimore. After problems in Maryland's mostly mail-in primary last month, Gov. Larry Hogan directed state elections officials on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, to conduct the November election under more traditional standards. Critics point out that his decision makes it more difficult for people to vote by mail or by drop-off ballot, increasing the likelihood of coronavirus transmission at polling places. (Brian Witte/AP)

In a memorandum sent to Gov. Larry Hogan and legislative leaders just two weeks ago, the head of a bipartisan group representing election administrators statewide pleaded for the upcoming general election to be conducted “primarily” by mail. The reasoning presented by David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, was straightforward: During the COVID-19 pandemic, it can’t be done safely otherwise. The organization supported having more polling places open than were available during the June 2 primary but made clear that local elections boards were already past the point where a “normal” election could be safely held. Even finding enough polling places would be a chore, he warned, as some senior centers have long served that purpose. The MAEO’s vision of expanding on the approach taken during the primary with mail-in ballots was a view essentially shared by the General Assembly’s presiding officers and by Democratic appointees to the state elections board. Case closed.

Unfortunately, the governor, who actually gets to decide how the next election is conducted, chose to ignore the advice of elections staff and the will of the legislature. This wasn’t a democracy. In instructing the Maryland Board of Elections, a majority of whom are his appointees, to conduct the Nov. 3 general election under traditional terms — with all polling places open and the mail-in option available only if voters apply for absentee ballots — Governor Hogan has made a shockingly bad choice. His one significant concession was to recommend mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. But how many Marylanders will see that bulk-mailing and just assume it’s a ballot like the one they received in the spring? Or perhaps be intimidated by the paperwork? Criticize voter inattentiveness all you like but it raises the prospect that either the person will not cast a ballot, which is an undesirable outcome, or show up on Election Day as a flood of voters inundate polling places at a time when the pandemic’s second wave is anticipated.

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Whatever one may think of a person’s obligation to vote in a representative democracy, it should not have to involve putting lives in jeopardy. And, of course, the risk associated with sitting for hours in enclosed spaces is highest for election judges, volunteers and staffers, who tend to skew older, which is exactly the population most endangered by the coronavirus. That’s why Mr. Hogan wisely endorsed a delayed primary with mail-in ballots last spring. Was it conducted smoothly? Nope, and we’ve offered our critique. But most of the more serious shortcomings, such as ballots being mailed to the wrong addresses, misprints or technical glitches (including the one that briefly reversed the result in Baltimore’s District 1 council race) can be overcome. Elections officials were reinventing the process in a matter of weeks with an unreliable vendor. If nothing else, they’ve learned from their mistakes.

Alas, it’s not difficult to speculate what’s happening here. The Republican Party has made a calculation that high voter turnout favors the Democrats and so they’ve been on a crusade for many years now to make it more difficult to vote whenever possible. Often, this involves claims of rampant fraud later disproved. To his credit, Governor Hogan doesn’t fall back on this canard in his July 8 letter to the state board but plenty of others in his party have at the local, state and federal level including, most notably, President Donald Trump. That Mr. Hogan is exploring a 2024 presidential bid himself may have more to do with his incautious choice than anything else. It doesn’t pay to run counter to one’s national party when it’s time to build a political coalition. Unconvincingly, the governor closes his letter with an admonishment not to allow “undue partisanship” or “political influence” to affect the board’s choice.

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We would urge the governor to reverse himself while there’s still time and ask the board to follow the principles that he outlined in his own letter to conduct “free and fair elections that facilitate maximum voter participation.” We would simply include this addendum: “and that do not require that public health be put unnecessarily and irresponsibly at risk.” A board that follows that guideline will inevitably support sending mail-in ballots to all and building on the most stunning success of the primary — a record high voter turnout — with more polling places opening before and on Election Day than in June. The more Marylanders vote by mail and aren’t stuck in long lines at the polls, the better for everyone.

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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