In the months since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood has done everything he could to protect his 79-year-old mother against the deadly virus.
Grocery trips, doctor’s visits and computer lessons, Yearwood has tried to shield her from potential exposure. But with the Maryland general election just months away, one thing he can’t do for her is vote.
“She is that Black woman who will be there for early voting. She will be there no matter what because she understands how important our democracy is,” the Bethesda pastor said.
“I want to keep my momma alive.”
He was among dozens of concerned citizens, voting rights advocates and elected officials who gathered outside Gov. Larry Hogan’s official residence in Annapolis on Wednesday, protesting his order for in-person elections this fall despite concerns from state and local election officials and safety and feasibility during the coronavirus pandemic.
The group is calling on Hogan to reverse course after he ordered election officials to run a regular, in-person election this fall. And for those who would prefer to vote by mail, he called for absentee ballot applications be sent to every registered voter. That process is a departure from the June 2 primary, mostly a vote-by-mail format in which ballots were automatically sent to voters statewide.
Advocates for vote-by-mail have conceded there were issues in the June primary. Specifically, some voters did not receive their ballots in time and a printing error forced workers to copy ballots by hand so they could be scanned properly.
“There were hiccups, yes. But from the perspective of basic democracy, they were stunningly successful,” said Mike Tidwell, one of the protest’s organizers and the executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
The state could learn from those problems to ensure they don’t happen in the general election, Tidwell said.
Others criticized Hogan for what they described as a run to the right during a time when he has made numerous media appearances in the lead up to the release of a forthcoming memoir. There has been speculation that he is considering a 2024 presidential run.
“It is dangerous and quite frankly I am at a loss as to what the governor thought is in moving down this path. It is wrong-headed,” said state Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat. “This comes straight out of the right-wing playbook of conspiracy about absentee and mail-in voting.”
A move away from mail-in voting hurts voting rights, said Del. Shaneka Henson, who along with fellow Annapolis Democrat state Sen. Sarah Elfreth and a number of other Maryland legislators called for Hogan to reverse course.
Maryland’s state Senate Republicans last month sent a letter to the State Board of Elections lobbying for a traditional election in November. Two Democratic state Senators have called for a “hybrid election” that would expand the number of in-person voting locations and allow early voting, while still mailing ballots to registered voters in the state.
“No one here today will claim that the June primary was perfect. There were flaws, there were mistakes made, but as legislators as elected representatives, it’s our job to learn from those mistakes to correct course, and to make sure that we have a free and fair election that facilitates maximum voter participation,” Elfreth said.
Hogan addressed the general election at a 5 p.m. news conference, touching on the “rampant problems with thousands or tens of thousands of Marylanders” who were impacted by long lines at polling places, and late or incorrect ballots, including some from the wrong district or in the wrong language.
The election will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines released last month to give voters as many options as possible, he said.
“The situation has descended into a typical partisan argument, which I think is the last thing we need right now.”
He noted that Maryland is one of only 14 states to mail ballots or absentee ballot applications. And he called on leaders in both parties to “stop all the political nonsense” and join him in strongly encouraging voters to vote by mail. He urged the State Board to send out the applications for ballots as soon as possible.
“If you’re unable to vote by mail, by state law you have eight days of early voting and we’re encouraging Marylanders to vote early in order to avoid possible crowds on Election Day,” he said. “We cannot have a repeat of the primary where people were unable to cast their vote.”
Some protesters Wednesday afternoon took to their cars, making several trips around Church Circle near the Governor’s Mansion, honking their horns and waving signs with slogans like, “Hogan: Allow vote by mail!” and “Needless risk, wasteful bureaucracy.”
“It’s suppression just to make it more difficult” to vote, said Lois Herty, a Towson resident. “Mail-in-voting is beneficial to everyone because it’s available to everyone. They don’t have to stand in line, the handicapped or disabled can vote.”
Confusion about the absentee application could also hurt voter turnout, said Gail Boesel, an 82-year-old Severna Park woman. Boesel said she had already signed up for an absentee ballot but was concerned that some less engaged voters might be confused by the ballot request application process.
Voters who request an application have to fill it out, wait for the ballot to arrive by mail and then return it by mail. It must be received within 10 days of Election Day to be counted.
“Just do it in one swoop,” she said.
Election experts have questioned whether it will be possible to staff every polling place in Maryland, especially when many poll workers skew older and are more at risk from the coronavirus.
“That’s the most important issue here is (poll workers) demographics are the older groups and more civically-engaged population. Young people aren’t necessarily going to sign up for that,” said Michael Lore, an Annapolis resident, who rode his scooter through the procession.
While Hogan has done a lot of good during the coronavirus pandemic, “he’s obviously caving to politics here,” Lore said.
“I think it’s the government’s responsibility to make it easier for people to vote,” he said. “Most countries have it much easier to vote and anyone who is a citizen or qualified has it made very easy.”
Yearwood said he is fighting to protect his mother by giving her, and other voters like her, a way to vote safely.
“If she is forced to go out there, she will put on her mask, she will put on her gloves … and she will get there if she has to,” he said. “But if that is what we have come to … if we are forcing our senior citizens to put their lives on the line to vote, then we have failed.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this story.