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Maryland elections board worries about ballot privacy, considers concealing voters’ signatures during mailing

The Maryland Board of Elections will survey local election boards across the state about whether they believe the state should provide an envelope to conceal voters' signatures when they return completed ballots by mail. In this April 17, 2020, photo, the staff of the Baltimore City Board of Elections counted ballots for a special election for the 7th Congressional District.
The Maryland Board of Elections will survey local election boards across the state about whether they believe the state should provide an envelope to conceal voters' signatures when they return completed ballots by mail. In this April 17, 2020, photo, the staff of the Baltimore City Board of Elections counted ballots for a special election for the 7th Congressional District. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The Maryland Board of Elections agreed Thursday to survey local election boards across the state about whether they believe a privacy envelope should be included with vote-by-mail ballots for upcoming elections.

The board met to discuss lessons learned from the state’s June 2 primary and to look ahead to improvements that could be made for the November general election.

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The group was briefed on ballots the U.S. Postal Service sent to local elections boards as “undeliverable” and the status of the state’s contract with its ballot printing vendor. But no issue commanded more attention from the state board than privacy envelopes, a topic that began with a request by the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

“Some of our voters have voiced concerns that the design of the vote-by-mail ballot compromised their privacy because there was no privacy envelope to prevent individuals from viewing their full name, signature and other information on the side of the envelope where the voter executed the oath,” the county board wrote in a letter to state election administrators.

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The Montgomery County board requested privacy envelopes be included in all vote-by-mail packets for the general election and asked to be privy to the state’s review process for the envelopes.

State law permits local boards to include privacy envelopes with absentee ballot packets. But the state was responsible for printing those ballots, as well as the vote-by-mail ballots printed for all eligible, registered voters for the June 2 primary.

The primary was delayed five weeks and held largely by mail due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The current ballot format requires a voter to write their name on the backs of their ballot return envelope and sign it. An abbreviation on the front of the ballot envelope indicates a voter’s political party.

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Several board members said they favor the use of privacy envelopes, but acknowledged it may not be possible to change the ballot packet design by November.

Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy election administrator, said the board has received “a few” complaints about privacy with the existing format, but said there have also been concerns that an additional envelope would increase the time needed to count votes. The June 2 canvass was particularly time-consuming, taking many jurisdictions a couple of weeks.

Charlson said she couldn’t discuss the issue further in an open session of the board because it involved a state contract.

She agreed to survey the local boards about their interest in more envelopes and the board planned to discuss the issue further during a closed session.

Election staff also provided the board with several updates on the primary. The vast majority of voters returned their ballots via mail or drop boxes, election officials reported, but lines were long at many in-person voting centers. Of the 44 voting centers offered statewide, 21 had to operate past 8 p.m. to accommodate voters who already were in line when polls closed.

About 40,000 voters took advantage of email ballot delivery, meaning their ballots had to be manually duplicated by local election boards before they could be scanned for counting.

Charlson said election staff are exploring all options under the state’s existing contract with ballot printer SeaChange, as well as soliciting test ballots from other printers to determine their capacity for November.

State officials said SeaChange was at fault for delivering ballots late to Baltimore City and Montgomery County voters ahead of the primary, as well as sending only Spanish-language instructions to voters in Prince George’s County and failing to include a court-ordered notice in the ballot packets of Hagerstown voters.

SeaChange, which has a contract with Maryland through the general election, has argued the state was late in delivering voter lists for the primary, forcing the ballots to be printed late.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has yet to make a decision about whether November’s election will be held via mail or in person at traditional precincts. Hogan has asked the state elections board to provide a report to him on what he called the primary’s “significant failures” by July 3.

Charlson acknowledged the report’s due date. Board Chairman Michael Cogan asked what needs to be included in the report.

“It was a report that was mentioned at a press conference, and we don’t have any guidance other than what was said at the press conference,” Charlson said.

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