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Governor Hogan chooses ‘electoral chaos’ in November | COMMENTARY

People wait to vote in the primary election at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Community Engagement Center polling place in June.
People wait to vote in the primary election at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Community Engagement Center polling place in June. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

What is the best path to running a successful election in Maryland this November?

Every single one of Maryland’s local election boards gave the same answer to this question before Gov. Hogan announced his election plan for the state Wednesday. These 24 local boards recommended that the state send ballots to all voters and supplement mail balloting with walk-up voting locations — the same hybrid recommendation that Maryland’s Senate president and I gave the state election board and governor weeks ago.

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Trying to hold a traditional in-person, precinct-level election in the middle of a pandemic, the local boards made clear, would be a prescription for failure, even if we added a vote-by-mail application process into the mix.

Unfortunately, Governor Hogan has chosen to disregard the advice of local election officials. The path he has chosen will likely result in long lines for voters and possible electoral chaos. And all this bedlam will come at a huge — and unnecessary — cost to taxpayers.

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The approach Governor Hogan has announced keeps all local polling stations open and requires multiple costly mailings. Election officials will first have to mail out applications for mail-in ballots to voters. Then election officials will have to process the returned applications and mail out and process the actual ballots.

At the same time, election boards will also have to invest their meager resources in creating as safe as possible an environment for walk-up voting because of COVID-19. No Maryland voters, after all, should have to endanger their lives by voting in person.

But many Marylanders will be placing their health in peril under the governor’s plan. The simple reason: Adequately and safely staffing all our traditional in-person precinct polling places will be devilishly difficult, especially since so many poll workers have reached the age bracket most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

If health concerns make election workers reluctant to work on Election Day, long lines will be inevitable. Those hours of waiting will increase the odds of virus transmission. Those long hours of waiting will also depress the vote as desperate citizens who can’t wait any longer turn around in disgust and leave.

Interest in this November’s election will be intense. We have an opportunity to expand our electorate and deepen our democracy. By choosing an unnecessarily convoluted approach to this November’s balloting, the governor may just contribute to achieving the opposite. Objectively, the governor’s approach amounts to voter suppression.

Earlier this spring, with only a little over eight weeks’ advance notice, the state elections board shifted from a walk-up, traditional primary election to a virtually all-mail ballot. The shift didn’t go seamlessly. Problems did crop up. But the general election in November remains almost four months away. With more time, election officials could have corrected the primary problems and ensured a smooth mail-in balloting process this fall.

A wide variety of Maryland good-government groups called for this mail-in November balloting, organizations that ranged from the ACLU and Common Cause to the League of Women Voters and Disability Rights Maryland. These advocates believed we could build on the June primary’s generally successful all-mail practice run.

But our governor has instead chosen to retreat. Instead of adequately protecting health and safety, he’s throwing a bone to Trump supporters attacking all-mail ballot elections. He’s demanding a traditional on-site election and forcing potential mail-in voters to jump through unnecessary hoops. The costly result will keep down voter participation.

We are better than that.

The governor now owns this election process. By rejecting the clear state consensus for mail-in balloting, he has handed himself a heavy new responsibility. He must make sure that this 2020 election process — his election process — does not descend into chaos.

Governor Hogan must provide local election boards the resources to recruit election judges in the middle of a pandemic. He must make sure that both local boards and the state board have the capacity to process the many vote-by-mail applications they expect to receive between now and Election Day. Finally, the governor must make sure every county election board has access to adequate personal protective equipment for all election judges.

If Governor Hogan doesn’t meet these responsibilities and problems arise, he shouldn’t blame election officials, be they Democrats or Republicans. The blame will be all his.

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State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (paul.pinsky@senate.state.md.us) chairs the education, health and environmental affairs committee, which oversees elections.

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