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7th Congressional District race will be Maryland’s first test of a mail-only ballot system

Maryland is set to hold its first mail-only election next month to decide who should complete the term of the late 7th District congressman Elijah Cummings.

The change was among the election decisions Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday in response to the spreading coronavirus outbreak.

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Maryland will postpone its presidential primary, originally set for April 28, until June 2, following the lead of several other states that pushed back their elections because of the virus. Nearly 60 cases had been confirmed in Maryland as of Tuesday.

What Hogan chose not to delay was the election to finish Cummings’ term, which also had been set to be decided in a special general election April 28. The state will instead hold a mail-only election, for which ballots must be postmarked by that date.

"It is imperative that the people of the 7th Congressional District have a voice in the House of Representatives and that Maryland has a full delegation representing our state in Congress,” Hogan, a Republican, said.

The 7th Congressional District has been without representation and voting power since Cummings’ death in October. A special primary was held in February to select both a Democratic and Republican nominee to fill the remainder of his term, which expires in January. Democrat Kweisi Mfume and Republican Kimberly Klacik secured those two spots.

The decision to try a mail-only ballot is an unprecedented test of Maryland’s election system. Until now, Maryland has allowed some mail-in ballots via absentee voting, which the state permits voters to use without any justification.

But even in past presidential election years, Maryland hasn’t come close to sending and receiving the number of ballots required to pull off a mail-only election for the 7th District race, state Board of Elections data shows. In the 2016 general election, Maryland sent 225,653 absentee ballots to voters who requested them; 177,653 were returned by voters.

The 7th Congressional District has 510,000 registered voters spread across Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. About 18% voted in the February special primary, which was restricted to registered Democrats and Republicans.

The state will not require voters to apply for absentee ballots in the mail-only special election, according to a news release from the state Board of Elections. Instead, ballots will be mailed to all eligible voters beginning sometime this month, the news release said.

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Mfume, who held the 7th District seat from 1986 to 1996 and won the Democratic nomination with a commanding lead in February, said he supported the governor’s decision to move forward with the congressional race in April, particularly because the seat has sat open for several months.

Mfume said he was “more comfortable” testing a mail-only ballot with a smaller group of residents rather than the more than 4 million active registered voters who make up the statewide electorate.

“These are really uncharted waters we’re in as a rule of the pandemic,” Mfume said. “I think it enhances the ability of the Board of Elections to get a sense of how this should be conducted so there is not any fraud in the process.”

After Hogan announced his decision, Klacik, a nonprofit founder and Baltimore County Republican Central Committee member, tweeted her immediate response. “That means our chance of flipping this seat red just increased,” she wrote.

In an interview, Klacik said her social media reach would be particularly advantageous in a campaign in which traditional retail politics such as rallies and handshaking would be limited by the coronavirus. Klacik said she will use social media — she has more than 124,000 Twitter followers — to get the message out to supporters about how to vote.

“We’re going to have to change the messaging. Getting out there that it needs to be mailed in is our first priority,” she said.

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Mfume said campaigns aren’t won on social media alone.

“We’ll match whatever presence we have to match here, but getting to people, talking to people and having them believe in the candidate is how they ultimately get elected,” he said.

If the process for the special election seems complicated, still more wrinkles exist. The partial term Mfume and Klacik are vying for expires early in January. Based on Hogan’s order delivered Tuesday, a regular primary to select a candidate to hold the 7th Congressional District seat for the following two years will now be held in June. Republican and Democratic nominees selected that day will face off in a November general election.

Mfume and Klacik are already on the ballot for that primary, but so are numerous other candidates who ran against them in the special primary in February, including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and State Sen. Jill P. Carter, both Democrats. Under the new election calendar, some of those candidates will now be running against a sitting congressperson with the added power of incumbency.

Carter praised Hogan’s decision to allow the congressional race to proceed in April and get a “temporary representative” in the seat.

“Our priority is the health and well being of all Marylanders,” she said. “We certainly would not want to have people coming out to vote to their peril.”

Rockeymoore Cummings applauded the governor’s decision both to postpone the primary and to move forward with filling her late husband’s seat as soon as possible.

“I’m laser-focused on what’s happening in the 7th District for the two years beyond Elijah’s term," she said. “I’m running to win on June 2.”

Rockeymoore Cummings acknowledged that her campaign will have to adapt to new norms while the country grapples with the spread of the new coronavirus. The delayed election, she said, means she has more time to get her message out to voters.

A few extra months in Washington won’t give April 28’s winner much of an incumbency boost, she said. Rockeymoore Cummings said she’s spent years building relationships and doing work on Capitol Hill.

More questions about the race remain unanswered, such as where the returned ballots will be mailed, who will count the results and whether postage will be prepaid. Elections officials said Tuesday afternoon they didn’t have those answers yet, but expect to have them “shortly.”

Voters will also have to adjust to the idea that the 7th Congressional District race will likely not be decided overnight. Counting mail-only ballots takes substantially more time, as evidenced by several West Coast states that have institutionalized the practice in the past decade.

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The results of Washington state’s presidential primary, held March 10, were not announced until Monday.

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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