The president of the Maryland Senate and the speaker of the state House called Tuesday on Gov. Larry Hogan to explore offering in-person voting as an option during the June primary, in spite of the new coronavirus outbreak.
In a letter circulated to members of both chambers, Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker Adrienne A. Jones argued that voting is an essential activity, akin to the work of essential businesses that have remained open despite severe restrictions Hogan has implemented during the pandemic.
“The state must explore potential options for in-person voting opportunities for a limited number of our citizens to ensure that we are demonstrating that democracy can still flourish in the midst of a public health emergency,” the Democratic leaders wrote.
The letter comes as the state Board of Elections prepares to submit a plan to Hogan on the logistics of the June 2 primary, in which Marylanders will nominate candidates for president and the U.S. House. Baltimore voters will also nominate candidates for mayor, City Council president, comptroller and council seats.
Earlier this month, Hogan issued an executive order postponing the primary from April 28 in response to the virus outbreak. At the same time, the Republican governor ordered the board to come up with a plan by Friday for how to carry out the rescheduled primary.
Last week, board members met to make recommendations for that plan. They worked toward a draft that calls for every eligible voter to receive a ballot by mail that citizens would fill out and mail back or deposit in drop boxes.
The five-person bipartisan board did consider offering limited in-person balloting during an early voting period to accommodate voters unable to vote by mail. But it opted against the plan after a dire warning from a state health department official that such centers would put poll workers and the public at risk for COVID-19 disease.
A representative from the Maryland attorney general’s office also spoke at the meeting, warning the board that offering no in-person option on primary day would exclude a subset of the eligible voting population with disabilities or limited access to mail.
“We oppose the elimination of all forms of in-person voting accommodations for the June 2nd primary election unless there is a demonstration that no in-person voting options are reasonably viable without seriously jeopardizing public health," Jones and Ferguson wrote.
“While the board makes a recommendation, the choice is in your hands, Governor Hogan, and we hope that whatever option you choose effectively balances the public health risks with maximized voter access and participation,” they said.
Under the state of emergency declared by Hogan in response to the virus, the governor has the authority to make changes to the election process and its calendar.
The state elections board will meet Thursday to finalize the election plan.
It has yet to vote on in-person voting for the primary, although the board did vote last week to eliminate that option for a special general election April 28 for the 7th Congressional District. That is proceeding by mail only in the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, said the governor will review the legislative letter as well as the Board of Elections’ plan once it has been submitted.
“The governor is committed to conducting the primary election in a way that protects public health and preserves the integrity of the democratic process,” Ricci said.
In their letter to Hogan, Ferguson and Jones note that the General Assembly has considered statewide vote-by-mail legislation before on several occasions without passing it into law. Concerns were raised about research showing minority voters are less likely to use mail ballots, as are transient and low-income populations.
“Most vote-by-mail only states are overwhelmingly white and took years, not months, to transition,” the letter states, noting that Colorado, a state that votes by mail, still offers an in-person option on Election Day.
Voting rights advocates have also spoken out against the Maryland Board of Elections’ draft plan for the primary, arguing it would discriminate against vulnerable populations including people with disabilities, those without housing and people temporarily displaced by the spreading outbreak.
Ballots are due to be mailed by late April to voters across the state for the primary.
Federal law requires states to offer the opportunity for people with disabilities to vote independently and privately. Maryland typically meets that requirement by offering special machines at in-person voting places, called ballot-marking devices, equipped with earphones and with a function that can produce a marked paper ballot for voters unable to fill one out on their own.
Voting centers also serve people who have trouble receiving mail. The state maintains a list of inactive voters based on mail to their addresses being returned as undeliverable. During any election, 1% to 4% of voters designated as inactive participate at the polls, according to state officials.