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Confusion reigns supreme for voters, candidates in 7th District Congressional race complicated by coronavirus

The governor and the candidates agreed. Despite the ever-tightening grip the new coronavirus continued taking on Maryland, the seat of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings had been unoccupied for too long — and at a critical time.

That’s what led Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to announce last month that the special general election for the 7th Congressional District seat, vacant since Cummings’ death in October death, would proceed April 28. One big accommodation was made: Due to the impending public health crisis, voters would cast ballots only by mail for the first time in Maryland.

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Now, with less than a month remaining until that date, confusion abounds.

Not until Wednesday did state officials say the mailing of ballots to voters was underway. Meanwhile, social distancing measures at a print shop inside a state prison scuttled plans to print postcards advising voters of the changes to the upcoming election. And decisions about the logistics of the special election day itself are still changing, delaying messaging from candidates that could be crucial for first-time mail-in voters.

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“It’s getting so confusing,” said Republican nominee Kimberly Klacik, who has been in regular contact with state election officials. “We don’t know what’s going on at the top.”

Anthony McCarthy, spokesman for Democratic nominee Kweisi Mfume, said he also was concerned about the lack of “emphasis” on the new election process.

“A very important ballot is about to come in the mail. You’ll need to fill it out and return it,” McCarthy said. “It is my hope that the board, the state board, would do more to ring the bell, to let voters know that this is about to happen.”

Both candidates are eager to spread that message. But in the absence of sample ballots, which only became available Wednesday, they couldn’t even prepare to disseminate the details of the election. Normally, sample ballots are available from elections offices months before voting day.

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The actual ballots have yet to appear in the mailboxes of the more than 500,000 registered voters in the district, which includes portions of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.

Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, tried to assure anxious leaders Wednesday in a state Board of Public Works meeting. She said that ballots were being mailed Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That gives voters less than a month to return their ballot or — if theirs doesn’t arrive — update their address with elections officials, request a ballot and return a completed one by mail.

Charlson said the elections board has a public relations firm working on voter outreach.

Her remarks were met with skepticism.

"I am highly skeptical about the ability of the state to pull off a mail-order election,” said state Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat.

Perhaps the most rapidly shifting piece of the puzzle involves in-person voting centers. Last week, Klacik said elections officials told her earlier that three in-person voting centers would be offered. But the state Board of Elections decided last week against such an option for the April 28 election for public health reasons, and indicated it would not offer voting centers in June, either.

Since then, voting rights groups have urged elections officials to reconsider, arguing the voting centers are needed to serve people with disabilities and inactive voters who cannot easily receive mail. On Tuesday, state Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones wrote a letter to Hogan, urging him to require voting centers for the June primary.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, a Republican, echoed their concerns during the Board of Public Works meeting.

“I’m not sure this addresses all the issues,” he said of the plan for the 7th District race.

The Board of Elections will meet Thursday to finalize its plan for the June 2 primary, and could reconsider its position on in-person voting. However, Linda Lamone, the state’s elections administrator, reiterated Wednesday that poll workers at voting locations would be at great risk.

Hogan has the authority to override the board’s decision about in-person voting in the 7th District. However, if he did, the change in procedure would not be reflected on the instructions being mailed now with the ballots.

“It’s not the most ideal situation," Hogan said Wednesday during a WBFF-TV interview when asked about the mail-only election. "But it’s better than having nobody representing the area in Congress all the way through until next year.”

All the confusion has essentially put campaigning on hold. The virus ended all public campaign events and canvassing for both candidates, relegating both to social media.

Klacik has been more active, posting health-related messages and videos almost daily. She spoke out on Twitter and Facebook against in-person voting, calling it an attempt at cheating by Democrats.

“Can you imagine if at one of those polling sites, 50,000 people showed up to vote on April 28?” Klacik asked during a video she posted March 24 on Twitter. “You could be standing in line next to someone infected with coronavirus. How would you know? You could actually take your mail-in ballot and drop it in a post office box on your way to vote, allowing an individual to vote twice.”

Mfume shared his own video this week on Twitter and Facebook, calling it a personal rather than a political message. He urged voters to practice social distancing and check in on those who live alone.

“Please take care, hang in there,” he said. “Do what we have to do so we can all get through this. And we’ll get past this together.”

Once the logistics of the 7th District race are finalized, the candidates will have a limited window to communicate with voters. McCarthy said all options are “on the table” to help voters understand the process, including social media, mailings and television advertising.

Klacik said such messaging presents a challenge for her campaign, which has seen fundraising efforts severely curtailed by the coronavirus outbreak. Mfume, who previously held the 7th District seat for a decade, has huge name recognition, and that’s hard to overcome, Klacik acknowledged. She hopes the Maryland Republican Party will step in to help.

“We’ll do mailers, and we’ll do the overnight text messages, but I just not sure if we have the money to do a commercial,” she said.

The challenges of the special election won’t end on April 28. Elections officials are preparing for a lengthy vote-counting process.

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“With the volume of ballots involved, it will take longer to do that than normal,” Charlson told state elections board members last week.

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The board may be asked to consider an extension of the normal 10-day window to do the official canvass of the votes, she said.

She also reminded board members that the process typically requires employees to work together in the same room, close to each other, which could be another challenge.

State officials also are working to collect high-speed scanners needed to count the ballots. Currently, Howard County has one, while Baltimore County and Baltimore City each have two. Charlson said officials are looking at borrowing scanners from other counties and supplying two more from the state.

Even with that technology, voters can expect a lengthy wait before learning the results. Washington, one of several states across the country that conducts elections by mail only, took a week last month to tabulate its primary results.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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