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Vote by mail works for Elijah Cummings’ old seat, but needs more planning for wider use | COMMENTARY

Vote by mail makes sense during certain races in a pandemic, but needs to be examined further for other elections.
Vote by mail makes sense during certain races in a pandemic, but needs to be examined further for other elections.(Eve Edelheit/The New York Times)

Maryland’s decision to hold the general election for the 7th Congressional District by mail makes sense for this election. But holding further all vote-by-mail elections without instituting proper protections risks the integrity of Maryland’s elections.

Even as we squarely face coronavirus, we must act to protect our democracy. States that conduct elections by mail have put a lot of effort into getting it right. Voters need to be able to return ballots at scattered secure drop-off locations — many feel deeply uncomfortable sending their ballot in by mail — as well through the postal service, and then verify online that the state received their ballot.

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Not everyone is at their home now, so the state must permit voters to request absentee ballots while simultaneously either not sending a duplicate or making sure the voter doesn’t cast two ballots.

Counting mail-in ballots is also far more time consuming. Election officials must be able to start the tally in advance of the closure of the polls to cut down wait times for initial and final results that inspire mistrust.

Mail-only elections require additional security measures, too. States that conduct elections by mail use machines to check signatures on the return envelope against signatures on file to make sure that voter really cast the ballot. Voters with rejected ballots must also be notified and have the chance to verify their ballot.

It would also be wise for election officials to examine ballots with overvotes — that is, more votes cast than positions up for election — to see if it is still possible to divine the intent of the voter. Despite repeated warnings, a small number who make an error will cross out instead of erasing the mistake, and then vote for someone else. Some cast a vote for their preferred candidate and then also write in the same name in the write-in space. Both votes should be counted as long as the intent of the voter remains clear.

Voting by mail requires new security measures not just because so many ballots will be in the mail, but also because lots of ballots will be sent to ineligible voters. Maryland is rightly very careful about purging the registration rolls to protect against disfranchisement. So the state will send ballots to many people who they don’t realize have died or have moved out of Maryland without their knowledge. This happens a lot.

When I moved back to Maryland after living and voting in South Carolina for six years, I discovered that I was still registered at my old Maryland address. Signature checks eliminate the vast majority of potential mischief.

Why is going ahead with the 7th District general election fine despite these issues? The district is so Democratic that the results will be outside the margin of error, and even more importantly, outside what election lawyers call the margin of litigation. The same cannot be said of the Baltimore mayoral primary. The proportional allocation of delegates in the Democratic presidential primary similarly requires greater certainty even if Joe Biden, as expected, wins Maryland in a walk.

This week’s decision by the State Board of Elections to have an all-mail election with “no real safeguards built into it” for the rescheduled primary invites doubt and legal challenges in close contests. Allowing any remotely marginal state to hold an all-mail presidential election without proper protections for voters and security would be madness.

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One temptation may be to hold the election by mail but require voters to request an absentee ballot. Maryland’s request form requires inclusion of a driver’s license, state ID or social security number. Beyond the disfranchising impact of excluding those without or unable to find ID, it would wrongly disfranchise voters who fail to request a ballot for a variety of reasons.

The state could heavily push absentee voting. But it is imperative that it simultaneously maintain open polling places. The Brennan Center for Justice has already produced guidelines explaining not just why this would be essential but how to do it safely despite coronavirus.

We learned after the 2000 election just how ugly close elections can get. Political polarization and mistrust have only risen over the past two decades. Many Marylanders are carefully yet bravely tending to the sick in hospitals. Others deliver essential supplies to stores and parcels to people remaining at home as the governor has correctly insisted. Our democracy is just as precious. The state must not wait on the federal government, but take action now to protect our elections and prevent the 2020 elections from going bad.

David Lublin (dlublin@american.edu) is a professor of government at American University.

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