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A safe, fair election is possible. Why won’t Gov. Hogan let Maryland have one?

Maryland conducted its first large-scale test of voting by mail, because of the public health threat from the coronavirus, during the April 28 special general election in the 7th Congressional District. The June statewide primary was conducted primarily by mail.
Maryland conducted its first large-scale test of voting by mail, because of the public health threat from the coronavirus, during the April 28 special general election in the 7th Congressional District. The June statewide primary was conducted primarily by mail. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Reconfiguring Maryland’s April special election and June primary election to allow voters to stay safe and vote by mail was an enormous and difficult task. It required state officials, community groups, vendors, postal workers and voters to move quickly and adapt. As we pointed out at the time, there were inevitable problems that threatened to disenfranchise voters, particularly in Baltimore City.

But despite challenges, voters turned out in droves — Baltimore City had the highest turnout in the state and its best showing in a Democratic Primary since 1987 — and there were no reported incidents of elections laws being violated.

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One would assume that, with a pandemic still raging in our midst and the relative luxury of six months to prepare, Maryland officials would improve the process put in place in those elections and prepare for an even fairer, safer election in November.

For some reason, that is not the case.

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On July 8, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the November general election would take place as normal, with all polling places open for in-person voting. Instead of mailing ballots to all voters, as was done for the special and primary elections, Governor Hogan mandated that all voters would receive an application for a mail-in ballot, which would have to be returned before a ballot would be sent by mail.

In the days since that announcement, public health officials, election officials and voting rights advocates have expressed clear, evidence-based reasons why Governor Hogan’s plan is dangerous, anti-democratic and a waste of money.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former Maryland Health Secretary and Baltimore City Health Commissioner, said during a recent press conference that the governor’s order to open all polling places puts voters’ and poll workers’ lives at risk: “The virus is hoping a lot of people show up to vote, particularly in cramped locations.”

Election officials have made it clear that because many poll workers are elderly, they would likely not be able to staff all polling places, leading to unplanned consolidation and long lines. “The real danger in a pandemic situation is the amount of time that people are exposed to the virus,” Mike Latner of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the news site Maryland Matters. “The greatest danger is waiting in line in a polling station to vote.

On top of that, mailing ballot request forms to be returned, rather than ballots, will cost taxpayers $5.6 million that could be saved if the state simply mailed ballots as it did in the primary.

To be fair, when Governor Hogan made his announcement on July 8, Maryland’s COVID-19 cases had not yet begun their latest surge. But now they have, and the governor has taken many steps to keep Marylanders safe, including expanding mask restrictions and restricting travel. Why won’t he take similar steps to protect Marylanders’ health and right to vote on Election Day?

In his press conference July 29, Governor Hogan implied that he is powerless to make changes to the General Election process. This is false. In fact, legal scholars say that without a special session of the General Assembly, he is the only one who can make such changes, as part of his authority under the current state of emergency.

It is still possible to prevent a potential public health disaster — not to mention voter suppression and a waste of millions of dollars — but Governor Hogan must act quickly. Election officials say they would need to change course by mid-August to begin the process of mailing ballots to all voters. If he refuses to act, more people will unnecessarily get sick and die, and history will remember Governor Hogan for this betrayal of leadership.

Joanne Antoine is executive director of Common Cause Maryland (jantoine@commoncause.org) and Sam Novey is co-founder of Baltimore Votes (sam@baltimorevotes.org).

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