Laptop charged? Check. Snacks and drinks ready? Check. TV in working order? One certainly hopes so. There’s only one thing wrong with those customary preparations for watching election returns: They may not be enough. With a wide-open race to succeed Larry Hogan as Maryland’s governor and quite a few down-ballot races considered too close to call, it’s fair to assume that a lot of folks — from Northeast to St. Mary’s City and from Berlin to Oakland — will be anxiously awaiting primary election results long after polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Combine those tight races with an expectation that a lot of votes will be cast absentee and, most frustratingly, a standing rule that elections officials can’t even open those ballots until the day after the primary, and Marylanders could be in for a long week (or more).
Under most circumstances, that might amount to no more than an annoyance. Even in too-close-to-call-right-away races, the winning candidates and their supporters will still have plenty of time to prepare for the Nov. 8 general election. But given the outbreak of paranoia and misinformation about the nation’s voting systems, so painfully spread by Donald Trump and his co-conspirators, a delayed result could easily become hotly contested. One assumes that Republican Del. Dan Cox, who was endorsed by Mr. Trump and traffics in 2020 election conspiracy theories, will be all too happy to make all kinds of outrageous claims should absentee ballots prove the difference-makers in his gubernatorial showing.
What’s especially frustrating is that it didn’t have to be this way. Given the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Hogan two years ago issued an emergency order that allowed local election boards to start counting mail-in ballots weeks in advance. It made perfect sense. In-person voting carried unnecessary health risks, and counting mail-in ballots can be a time-consuming task. But that order expired, and legislation that would have extended that policy was vetoed by the governor as it also allowed voters a second chance to sign the oath on the back of the mail-in envelope if they initially forgot to do so. In his May 27 veto message, Mr. Hogan said the bill lacked sufficient security safeguards — namely signature verification and protections against “ballot collecting.”
And while it’s true that most states maintain some form of signature verification, its usefulness remains up for debate. Instances of absentee voter fraud are statistically rare. Ballots are, after all, only sent to registered voters in the first place. As for ballot collecting — or, as it’s often called, “harvesting” — that’s usually just a Republican complaint over how certain groups enable absentee voting by helping turn in completed ballots (the minority party being reliably opposed to rules that facilitate voting). And Maryland appeared to operate just fine in 2020 without addressing either issue. As a result, the only certain effect of the governor’s veto is to delay results from being tabulated and potentially plant doubts in voters’ minds. Mr. Hogan might have at least issued another emergency order, which would have been justified given the ongoing health threat of the latest omicron sub-variant, but he did not.
So, consider yourself warned. No matter who wins the primary or general elections this year, let one of the first pieces of business for the 2023 session of the Maryland General Assembly be for newly elected lawmakers to pass legislation allowing absentee ballots to be opened and counted prior to in-person voting. And, we hope, the next governor will have the wisdom to sign the measure into law so that election nights will once again be election nights and not election days or weeks.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the high-profile races will be decided earlier. Insightful endorsements made by Maryland’s largest daily newspaper, for instance, could sway a lot of undecided voters in the final days (hint, hint). But it’s probably wise to plan for uncertainty, especially in the hotly contested Democratic and GOP gubernatorial primaries, which could prove as close or closer than Parris Glendening versus Ellen Sauerbrey in the 1994 general election, where fewer than 6,000 votes out of 1.4 million cast made all the difference.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.