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Maryland must fix election problems before November | COMMENTARY

Voters line up at Northwood Elementary before the polls open for the Maryland primary election.
Voters line up at Northwood Elementary before the polls open for the Maryland primary election. (Jerry Jackson/AP)

Maryland held a primary election on June 2nd that everyone knew would have challenges due to the spread of COVID-19.

The election was Maryland’s first attempt at a statewide vote-by-mail system. Overall, voting was fairly simple for most in the state — and extremely difficult and impossible for others, specifically in jurisdictions with the largest population of black and brown voters. We expected obstacles and watched them play out all throughout Maryland.

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Some of these challenges could have been prevented if recommendations made by voting rights advocates were implemented. The problems we observed must be addressed before the general election in November.

Before last week’s election, Common Cause Maryland, along with coalition partners, advocated for expanded in-person voting options and extensive voter outreach by the State Board of Elections. We recommended that Gov. Larry Hogan establish a task force made up of voting rights advocates and experts to assist with the implementation and communication of these changes. That didn’t happen.

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We anticipated voter confusion and high turnouts at the limited in-person vote centers in Prince George’s County, parts of Montgomery County, and in Baltimore City, where we expected an overwhelming number of ballots would be undeliverable. We knew many ballots would be undeliverable in Baltimore City because that is what happened during the special election for the 7th Congressional District. Also, because many voters typically choose to vote early where an outdated address has likely not been an issue.

The need to increase in-person voting was confirmed on Election Day by the various accounts of long lines in these jurisdictions. There were reports of voters waiting up to three hours in order to cast their ballot.

There were difficulties both for voters who voted by mail — following the State Board of Elections recommendation by mailing or dropping off their ballot — and for those who chose or had no option but to vote in person.

With the mail-in process, there were a number of technical issues ranging from late delivery of ballots to errors and inconsistencies in the information on these ballots. In Baltimore City, many voters arrived at vote centers and stood in line for hours only to discover they were marked as already having voted, when they never received a mail-in ballot.

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The primary proved that voting rights advocates were right — even with ballots being mailed to active registered voters, there should have been more vote centers, or at the very least, the vote centers should have been available in the days leading up to the day of the election. To be clear: without vote-by-mail, the problems in the primary election would have been far worse; but the change to mail-based voting should have been coupled with a robust voter outreach program, along with early voting and more in-person vote centers.

While the election ran fairly smoothly in most parts of the state, it is unfortunate that, like in previous elections, communities that are home to black and brown voters, as always, faced the most barriers to voting. In a time when inequity in all of our nation’s institutions is being examined, it is clear that this also applies to Maryland’s election system. We need to ensure that all Maryland voters have the same ability to cast their ballots, without obstruction.

The good thing that was made clear is people want to vote and have their voices heard. Voting by mail remains a safe, secure and healthy way to ensure that all eligible voters can achieve this. No American should have to choose between their right to vote and the health of their families, and we already know how to ensure that no American ever will.

As we prepare for November, we again ask that Governor Hogan establish a task force made up of voting right advocates to give suggestions on how to conduct that election. We also urge the Maryland General Assembly to not only hold hearings in the coming weeks, but also prioritize a vote by-mail study during the 2021 legislative session; legislation for a study has been introduced multiple times but not yet passed.

We look forward to working with the State Board of Elections in preparation for November. We also look forward to working with our election protection volunteers. During the primary election, more than a hundred Marylanders helped their fellow voters through challenges of missing ballots, changed polling locations, and the right to vote provisionally. We honor and appreciate their service on behalf of our democracy.

Joanne Antoine (jantoine@commoncause.org) is executive director Common Cause Maryland.

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