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Maryland election chief: State needs $20M more to pull off Nov. 3 election in a pandemic

The state elections administrator says an additional $20 million will be needed to pay for Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to carry out the Nov. 3 election. In this June 2, 2020, photo, a voter talks with an election judge at Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore.
The state elections administrator says an additional $20 million will be needed to pay for Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to carry out the Nov. 3 election. In this June 2, 2020, photo, a voter talks with an election judge at Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The state elections administrator says an additional $20 million will be needed to pay for Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to carry out the Nov. 3 election — a plan Democrats already have criticized as unsafe because of the coronavirus pandemic.

State Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone said Tuesday that the Maryland elections board will submit a budget amendment to help cover costs such as cleaning supplies for polling places, protective equipment for workers, and postage and printing for sending vote-by-mail requests and ballots.

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Lamone outlined the costs in a letter she emailed to the Hogan administration and state lawmakers overseeing budget and appropriations issues.

“Our FY21 budget is not sufficient to conduct the Nov. 3 election,” she wrote.

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One of those lawmakers, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee chair Guy Guzzone, said Tuesday that the added costs represent another reason to oppose Hogan’s plan, which calls for widespread in-person voting. The Howard County Democrat has expressed concern that the plan poses health and safety issues for election judges and voters because of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Hogan, a Republican, said July 8 that the state would hold a traditional election with every precinct open to its voters on Election Day. To accommodate anyone who feels unsafe casting a ballot in person because of the virus, Hogan ordered the state board to send each voter an application for a mail-in ballot.

Local election directors have said they don’t know how they can open enough polling places to pull off such an election in the midst of the pandemic, with 25,000 workers needed to staff those polls and an unknown number of regular locations unavailable because of the virus. Senior centers and schools, which have been closed to the public to control the spread of COVID-19, are commonly used as voting sites.

In her letter, Lamone said it would cost $5.6 million to print and mail voters applications for a mail-in ballot. It would cost another $5.5 million, she wrote, to produce and send those ballots. That’s based on an estimate of 50% of eligible voters requesting a ballot and voting by mail.

Guzzone said it would have been cheaper, safer and easier for citizens to use the same approach as in the June 2 primary, when the state automatically mailed ballots to the more than 4 million eligible registered voters in Maryland. A limited number of voting sites was offered on primary day in each county.

“There is $4 million of voter outreach (in Lamone’s plan), so they understand what’s going on,” Guzzone said. “If you keep switching from one to other, it keeps confusing the population about what an election actually looks like.”

Obtaining the $20 million could require a combination of actions, including the administration agreeing to bring federal money into the process, according to Guzzone. Lamone may need to take money from her existing budget and use it for the election, and there is then a process under which additional money is appropriated later to account for the new spending.

Neither Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci nor the administration’s Department of Budget and Management commented Tuesday on the election cost outline or Guzzone’s objections.

In announcing his decision to open all of Maryland’s regular polling sites on Election Day, Hogan said a “normal” election would resolve problems from the primary. On ABC’s “The View” Monday, the governor said the State Board of Elections “screwed up getting ballots out” in the spring.

“They mailed the wrong ballots. They mailed Spanish ballots to English speakers. They sent things to the wrong districts. They got them out too late,” Hogan said.

The election board’s 2021 fiscal year budget is $31.6 million. That includes operating expenses such as salaries and transportation contracts, as well as election expenses, which are shared with county boards.

In addition to the cost of mailing out documents, election boards typically pay for return postage so voters don’t have to use stamps when sending in requests for ballots and in mailing back completed ballots. County boards will pay $3.6 million for return postage for the two mailings associated with the Nov. 3 election, but the state will reimburse them for half that expense, Lamone’s letter said.

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Early voting will be conducted from Oct. 22 through Oct. 29 at 78 locations. The Nov. 3 voting will be at about 1,600 neighborhood polling places.

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