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Voting during a pandemic | COMMENTARY

Maryland's primary election will be conducted mostly by mail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Maryland's primary election will be conducted mostly by mail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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The state of Wisconsin recently went ahead with its primary at polling places as planned, forcing many residents to choose between protecting their personal health and exercising their right to vote. No American should have to make that choice. Here in Maryland, we won’t have to.

Unlike leaders of some other states, Gov. Larry Hogan took early, decisive action, postponing Maryland’s primary election to June 2, giving officials time to set up procedures for most voters to vote by mail. The special election to replace the late Rep. Elijah Cummings in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District will go ahead on April 28, also using primarily mailed-in ballots.

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Changing the voting process on short notice is a challenge, but with thoughtful planning and execution, state residents can protect their health while participating in free and fair elections. Our organizations and others are committed to working with city and state officials to support and promote policies and procedures to make this happen, but it’s only possible if residents learn and share accurate information and choose to participate.

The April 28 special election will be one of the first federal elections in the country that has switched to voting by mail because of COVID-19. If Maryland is able to manage the transition effectively in such limited time and voters participate in large numbers, it would be a tremendous honor to Cummings, who spent his life advocating for inclusive democracy. It would also provide a model for the rest of the country to follow.

For the June 2 primary election, which includes presidential, mayoral, city council and other local races, the hope is that most people will mail in a ballot to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The Maryland Board of Elections has also created alternatives. Each jurisdiction will establish at least one location for voters to cast their ballot in person on election day. These “vote centers” are for anyone, but will allow those who need special accommodations, like ballot marking devices, to vote while practicing appropriate social distancing measures.

There will be drop boxes available as well, at the voting centers and likely some other locations. Voters can drop off their ballots at voting boxes from May 21 to June 2.

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While Maryland’s transition from in-person voting to voting by mail is accelerated by the pandemic, we can learn a lot from states that have been voting by mail for years.

Four states — Washington Oregon, Utah, and Colorado — already vote primarily by mail. Several other states, including Maryland, have made it easier for people to vote by mail in recent years. Today in Maryland, anyone can vote by mail without needing an excuse not to go in person.

In 2000, 10% of Americans voted by mail. In 2018, it was almost a third. When voting by mail is implemented well, it is widely considered to be effective and secure, with many benefits over in-person voting. It creates a paper record of every vote and allows voters to sit with a ballot and research races without the pressure to make decisions in a voting booth — a benefit for those with low literacy levels or for whom English is not their first language.

And there has been almost no fraud: Oregon voters have sent in over 100 million ballots since 2000, and only about a dozen people have been caught and prosecuted for election fraud.

Mail ballots, with a return envelope and paid postage, for the primary will be sent to the more than 4 million eligible registered voters in Maryland. Others can easily go to the state board of elections website to request a ballot.

To make sure your voice counts, go to baltimorevotes.org to learn more about the process in the city and find links to register to vote and to check the address on file with the board of elections. To make sure your community is counted, share accurate and timely information with friends and neighbors. If you have questions, call the Baltimore Votes Election Hotline, 410-844-4859.

If we work together, we will demonstrate our strength and ensure that every voter who wants to be heard will be heard.

Sam Novey (sam@baltimorevotes.org) is co-founder of Baltimore Votes; Nykidra Robinson (nrobinson@blackgirlsvote.com) is CEO of Black Girls Vote; Danielle Torain (Danielle.torain@opensocietyfoundations.org) is director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

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