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Baltimore election director says Maryland’s plan to vote in person in November is a ‘setup for failure’

Calling Maryland’s plan to hold a traditional election in November a “setup for failure,” Baltimore City Election Director Armstead Jones reported Thursday that early planning for the fall election has been a “nightmare.”

Speaking to the city’s board of elections, Jones outlined a preelection landscape that includes millions of dollars in increased costs, nearly 300 different types of ballots in the city and a rapidly emerging shortage of polling places, as virtually all of the senior centers contacted thus far have declined to allow polls at their sites.

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“This is pretty much a nightmare, trying to piece it together,” Jones said.

Election officials warned Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that many of these problems would result from holding a traditional election during the coronavirus pandemic, Jones told the board, but that input appeared to have “fallen on deaf ears,” he said.

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“Of course, we respect the governor’s power and authority to call for the election in the way he desires for it to happen, but we feel it’s a basic setup for failure,” Jones said.

Hogan announced last week that he expects all polling places, as well as early voting sites, to be open. He also ordered elections officials to mail all voters applications for vote-by-mail ballots.

The decision came as a surprise to election officials, who carried out a vote-by-mail primary in June that sent ballots to all eligible voters whether they requested one or not. Of the ballots cast, 97% used the form sent in the mail.

The governor said in revealing his decision that a “normal” election would resolve problems the state experienced in the primary. Some voters said they didn’t receive ballots in time, and there were long lines at the limited number of in-person voting centers.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said Wednesday night: “We hope and expect Mr. Jones will help us actively encourage early voting, absentee voting by mail, and voting at off-peak times as safe and efficient options for voters. He should certainly share any ideas he has, or any lessons he has learned from the problems with the primary election, with the state board.”

The governor’s order sent Jones and other local election directors scrambling to plan for an election held primarily in person.

Jones said state officials told him it will cost $5 million to mail the absentee ballot applications to voters across the state, an expense he expects the city elections board to have to help cover.

Ballot drop boxes will be offered again, he said. But while they were popular with voters in the primary, election directors across the state have declined to ask for more out of concern for the cost. Baltimore spent $70,000 for a security firm to monitor its 15 boxes ahead of the primary, he said.

“It’s money, money money, right down the line,” Jones said as board member Tamara Purnell buried her head in her hands.

As anticipated, election officials are finding a shortage of election judges and polling places in the midst of the global health crisis.

In addition to senior centers saying no, church officials are wary of opening their doors and many public buildings, such as schools, may remain closed, Jones said. Some of the churches that have been willing to serve as polling sites this fall have said they would require the Board of Elections to pay for a professional cleaning service afterward at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000, he said.

Election officials are considering consolidating some precincts, but that could also increase costs, Jones warned. The board would have to print and mail replacement voter identification cards to people assigned to new locations, he said.

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Board members discussed potential polling sites, at one point floating the idea of tents in large parking lots. Jones said that idea had been explored, but was dismissed due to cost. Deputy City Elections Director Abigail Goldman said the sites would also be difficult to secure overnight.

Board member Philip a’Becket asked about the potential for sites like M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, noting that they are owned by the state, have big parking areas and are likely to be empty.

“They might have a season,” a’Becket said of the Baltimore Orioles, “but even if they do, they’re not making it to the World Series.”

Jones said he would look into the idea and invited board members to submit more suggestions.

Additional costs and confusion lie ahead due to a State Board of Elections’ promise to provide precinct-level results from Election Day, Jones said. For example, to report results by precinct for Baltimore, 296 different ballot styles will be required. Those ballots will need to be on hand at each precinct, meaning the local election board will need to pay to print them and pay to buy more large cabinets to sort them, Goldman said.

“You’re talking about the whole state of Maryland?” asked board member Arlene Fisher when Jones delivered the news about the ballot styles.

“Just Baltimore City,” Jones replied, explaining that some even larger jurisdictions, like Montgomery County, will need as many as 800 ballot styles to gather precinct-level results.

Staffing for polling sites remains an urgent concern, Jones said, noting Baltimore needs 3,000 people to pull off a traditional election. The city board has sometimes held elections with fewer, but not in a pandemic and not during a presidential election as critical as November’s is expected to be, he said.

Staffing constraints will also likely delay the counting of votes. The city Board of Elections uses the same pool of workers to work early voting locations as it did to start counting votes ahead of primary day in June. Employees cannot be in different places at the same time, he said.

“When we will finish counting? Who knows?” Jones said. “That’s going to be an issue.”

Jones said the Maryland Association of Election Officials, which represents local election directors across the state, is drafting another letter to send to Hogan asking him to reconsider the traditional election plan. Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young of Baltimore and Democratic leaders of six large Maryland counties have also asked Hogan to change to a primarily vote-by-mail election, as has Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh.

Ricci responded Tuesday to the local leaders’ request by saying, “This issue should not be a partisan one, and everyone should have the chance to request a ballot to make their voice heard.” He urged them to “join us in actively encouraging early voting, absentee voting-by-mail, and voting at off-peak times as safe and efficient options.”

Several members of the Baltimore City Council have also called on the governor to alter his decision. They discussed the issue Wednesday at a committee meeting.

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“Forcing Marylanders to submit multiple mailings so that they can exercise their right to vote by mail will lead to unnecessary confusion and reduce voter participation,” Council President Brandon Scott said Wednesday. Scott will be on the ballot as the Democratic nominee for mayor.

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Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey called the current plan “an exercise in futility” and a “plan for failure.” He questioned whether the State Board of Elections would speak out against the governor if it determines the election is likely to cause significant disenfranchisement or present a safety hazard.

State Elections Administrator Linda Lamone said during the meeting that the point at which it would be too late to switch plans was days, not weeks away.

“People’s lives are at stake,” Scott said. “We want to make sure we are not playing around.”

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