Yielding to pressure from voting rights advocates, the Maryland Board of Elections reversed itself Thursday, recommending the state offer at least one in-person voting center in each county for the June 2 primary despite concerns about the new coronavirus outbreak.
The board’s new plan still needs the approval of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
It calls for a minimum of one voting center and a maximum of four in each of Maryland’s 24 counties. The centers would be offered on primary day only at sites typically used for early voting centers, subject to approval by the state.
The reversal came just a week after the board recommended against offering such an option, a decision influenced by remarks from Webster Ye, director of the Maryland Department of Health’s office of governmental affairs. Ye warned board members that protective gear would not be available for poll workers and cautioned the outbreak wouldn’t peak until around July 4 — more than a month after primary day.
A day later, Hogan dismissed Ye’s statements as “personal opinion."
During Thursday’s meeting, a different state health department official attended, pledging at the outset to assist the board with executing its constitutional duty to allow all Marylanders to vote.
The state cannot provide a timeline for the virus, cautioned Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the health department’s environmental health bureau. He also advised the group that masks are not recommended for “routine community use," and recommended the board consider physical barriers or digital screens for remote communication to minimize face-to-face contact at polling places.
The board considered offering as many as 79 in-person voting centers — the number of early voting locations Maryland offers during a typical election. But concerns about finding enough workers and sites led them to limit the options. State election officials said about 1,000 people would have been needed to staff the 79 centers, with more than 10 people per location.
Voters still will receive ballots via mail under the board’s finalized plan, and they’ll be strongly encouraged to return them via mail or at drop boxes at the in-person voting sites. Voters should not vote in person unless they are unable to fill out their ballot due to a disability or they did not receive a ballot in the mail, the plan states.
The plan is due to Hogan Friday based on an executive order he issued last month delaying the primary, originally slated for April 28, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The state of emergency Hogan declared for Maryland gives him the authority to make changes to the election calendar or voting procedure. Hogan said Wednesday he hoped the board would come up with a plan acceptable to everyone.
“We want to make sure every single citizen has the opportunity to cast their vote, but we also want to make sure that we keep everybody safe,” he said.
After the board’s initial recommendation last week, several voting rights groups spoke out against the decision, as did state Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones. The Democratic legislative leaders wrote a joint letter to Hogan, urging him to consider offering in-person voting on a limited basis to maximize participation.
Advocates for voting rights and people with disabilities argued thousands of Marylanders would be disenfranchised by an election conducted exclusively by mail. Federal law protects the rights of those with disabilities to vote independently and privately, something typically accomplished with ballot marking devices offered at polling places.
“My preference is just to have vote by mail, but I do understand the need, in some special circumstances, the need to vote in person, whether it’s the disabled community or someone who did not receive a ballot,” board member Patrick Hogan said Thursday.
But board members said it must be clearly communicated to voters that voting centers are not for everyone, and they remained concerned about the protections that could be offered to poll workers.
Elections administrators said they have requested hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. They sought to assure board members that they are working with state health officials to design a plan for additional safety protocols, such as how often to wipe down voting machines and how many people to allow inside at one time.
“There’s going to be more and more fear as we get closer to the election. That’s why I think erring on the side of less is better than more," Patrick Hogan said of the number of voting centers.
Marylanders will vote in the primary for nominees for president and the U.S. House. Baltimore voters also will pick nominees for mayor, City Council president, city comptroller and City Council seats.
Thursday’s decision by the election board does not apply to a special general election for the 7th Congressional District. That’s proceeding as scheduled on April 28, but by mail only. Last week, the board decided against offering any in-person voting centers for that race. The district includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.