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Making elections fair for everyone during a pandemic | COMMENTARY

In this May 17, 2016, file photo, ballots are prepared for counting at Multnomah County election headquarters in Portland, Oregon, which has mail-in elections. The state of Maryland is turning to mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In this May 17, 2016, file photo, ballots are prepared for counting at Multnomah County election headquarters in Portland, Oregon, which has mail-in elections. The state of Maryland is turning to mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.(Don Ryan/AP)

In these troubling times, we are rightfully focused on our basic, essential needs. We are trying to juggle kids, work, family, safety and bills in the midst of this crisis. One other activity should certainly make our list of essentials: voting.

Maryland has important elections coming up: a special election to fill the late Elijah Cummings’ 7th Congressional District seat on April 28, the presidential primary election and Baltimore City elections, which were postponed until June 2 and the general presidential election in November.

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The Maryland State Board of Elections (BOE), in conjunction with Gov. Larry Hogan are working hard to ensure that voices can be heard and votes counted in the midst of the pandemic. It will be a challenge to make sure all eligible voters and elections workers can participate safely. But we are confident our communities and government are smart and flexible enough to withstand these challenges if we meet them with determination.

To keep Marylanders safe, the 7th Congressional District election will be held wholly by mail, a new way to vote for Marylanders but one that has been used for several years in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.The BOE is likely to recommend to the governor that the June primary be conducted by mail as well.

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Voting by mail is easy. Voters get their ballot in the mail, fill it out, put the completed ballot in the enclosed pre-addressed envelope with a signature on the outside and drop it in a mailbox. And thanks to emergency action from the Maryland legislature in March, all the envelopes will also include prepaid postage for the April election. We recommend they do the same for the June election.

Shifting to vote by mail, as the governor and board of elections are doing, is the right decision in the face of this public health crisis, but there is more they can do to ensure these elections are accessible to all voters.

The state should further expand the options for people to vote safely. Specifically, the state should establish limited vote centers for in-person voting on election day and during an early voting period. Vote centers provide access to the ballot for people who cannot vote by mail, including those who are vision impaired, have other disabilities, need to register to vote or did not receive a ballot.

Of course, vote centers will need to follow the guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to establish rules to protect public health and prevent transmission of the virus. This includes ensuring social distancing, protective covers for voting machines, sanitation stations and more.

What else can Maryland do to help the elections go smoothly? Maryland PIRG and Common Cause Maryland have some suggestions: Consider having ballot drop boxes outside grocery stores and pharmacies; allow voters who can’t register online to request a voter registration form be mailed to them; and extend the voter registration deadline and early voting periods.

Most important, we need a robust public education campaign to make sure Marylanders know how they can vote. Voting by mail is almost entirely new to our state. People need to be informed about new processes and encouraged to update their voter registration. We urge the state to invest in paid digital and broadcast media, text and phone alerts, and other methods to get the word out about the process.

Additionally, we need to reach out to communities who may struggle with the new processes, particularly students, people with disabilities, the elderly and those without access to the internet. For instance, students who are registered at their campus address but are now back at home now need to request their ballot be mailed to their home address or update their registration with their home address.

Running our elections by mail during this public health emergency will not be perfect — nothing is. Results will be slower since counting the ballots safely will be time consuming. But in times of crisis it is critical that we preserve our democracy and maintain faith in our government and institutions. Our role as Marylanders is to do everything we can to participate in the upcoming elections, and help our friends and family to do the same.

Emily Scarr is Maryland PIRG Director, Twitter: @marylandpirg. Joanne Antoine is Common Cause Maryland Director. Twitter: @CommonCauseMD.

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