On an unusual and delayed primary Election Day, shortages of election judges meant many precincts were understaffed and delayed in opening across Maryland on Tuesday — but otherwise, everything from abortion to local schools to high taxes sent voters to ballot boxes as usual.
At Vincent Farm Elementary School in White Marsh, there were only eight poll workers — not the expected 22 — after expected staff dropped out because of new jobs, a rescheduled primary and a case of COVID-19 caught at a Las Vegas trade show, Chief Election Judge Gary Davison said.
That meant polls there opened about 10 minutes late Tuesday morning, but Davison said voters were patient.
“We’ve been fortunate,” Davison said. “I’ve got the toughest eight-judge crew this side of the [Jones Falls Expressway].”
The challenges, which also included new political districts for many voters, didn’t stop voters from being heard.
Bonnie Rice, an 84-year-old Linthicum resident who said her top priority as a Republican voter was tax increases, voted at a new polling site, Linthicum Elementary School, because of redistricting. She said it was easier to cast her ballot than it had been in years.
”There was no line, and then they had someone waiting at the door for me,” Rice said.
The State Board of Elections received reports of locked facilities in Prince George’s County well past scheduled 7 a.m. poll openings, while in Baltimore City, election officials said they were still trying to determine how many sites opened late. Armstead Jones, director of Baltimore elections, said he believed most of the delayed openings were only by 15 to 20 minutes, caused by a lack of chief judges, who are responsible for administering voting procedures at each precinct and ensuring a fair and accessible election for all eligible voters.
It was not immediately clear how large the statewide shortage of judges was, exactly; Baltimore election officials said theirs likely won’t be known until after polls close. Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the state Board of Elections, said although she did not have a statewide estimate, there were “not a lot” of resulting delays at the polls. The state board of elections had continued to recruit for election judges as recently as Monday.
“We have enough to make sure we have the all precincts covered,” said Richard Siejack, deputy director of the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections.
Jones said Baltimore election officials had warned that summer vacations and COVID-19 quarantines would make it difficult to staff the city’s 296 precincts — compared to the just 34 voting centers that have been used since the coronavirus pandemic began — and those fears came true.
“It’s one of those situations where, ‘We told you so,’” Jones said. “Everybody is short.”
Harford County Elections Director Stephanie Taylor said that the county was more than 150 judges short of the 742 officials were looking for, meaning some polling sites were understaffed but none were prevented from greeting voters.
In Carroll County, some judges quit with hours to go ahead of Election Day, though with a relatively low turnout of about 4,600 voters across the county by 11 a.m., precincts were staffed adequately, said Katherine Berry, the county’s election director. A confluence of factors have made this primary season especially challenging, she said.
The primary had been scheduled for June 28 but was delayed three weeks as the state’s highest court considered legal challenges to newly drawn district maps for congressional, state legislative and some county council races. Now, the results of some contests might not be known until August, with counting of mailed ballots not set to begin until Thursday.
”There were many things in this election cycle that are simply out of our control to manage, beginning with everything that occurred during redistricting,” Berry said. “We have done everything we can on the compressed timeline, and I am hopeful that everyone will be patient with the election judges that we do have.”
Voters can cast ballots in person until 8 p.m. at their assigned polling place. Those who requested mail-in ballots also have until 8 p.m. to drop those in one of nearly 300 designated drop boxes around the state; otherwise, ballots must be postmarked Tuesday to be accepted.
On the ballot are candidates for virtually all statewide political offices: governor, comptroller, attorney general, the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.
Polls suggest close races for the Democratic and Republican nominations for governor. Comptroller Peter Franchot, former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and former nonprofit leader Wes Moore are leading a crowded Democratic field looking to recapture the office from Republicans, while on the GOP side, voters appear evenly divided between former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, endorsed by outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, and Del. Dan Cox, the choice of former President Donald Trump.
Maryland’s primary is closed, meaning voters must have a registered party affiliation to cast ballots and can only weigh in on their party’s contests.
It could become clear Tuesday whether expectations of lower-than-usual turnout come true. Turnout during an early in-person voting period that ended Thursday was lower than in the 2018 primary. Some 347,000 voters had cast ballots either by mail or in person by then, about 9.2% of eligible active voters, according to the State Board of Elections. About 24% of Maryland voters turned out during the 2018 state primary election.
Traffic was light at many polling places, though voters like Joel Evans, a Randallstown resident and student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said they were eager to cast ballots in person, instead of by mail. Evans cast his ballot at Liberty Senior Center in Randallstown.
“Voting in person is more important than just mailing in because when you come in, people are seeing you vote; it’s not behind closed doors,” Evans, 21, said. “If people see you do it, then they will most likely do it as well.”
If Election Day voting was light, it’s likely because of the growth in mail-in voting since the pandemic began, said Howard County Election Director Guy Mickley. By 11 a.m., turnout in Howard was just over 7,000 voters, lighter than Election Day voting in 2018, whereas the county had received 13,000 mail-in ballots and 10,500 ballots during the early in-person voting period July 7 to 14, Mickley said.
Issues including abortion rights and schools were motivating some voters who did choose to cast ballots at polling places early Tuesday.
Dawn Fuller, 57, a government contractor and Catonsville resident, said abortion rights are at the forefront of her mind this primary season. Although access to abortions appears safe in Maryland, she remained concerned about laws restricting them elsewhere as she cast her ballot at Woodbridge Elementary School.
”You don’t really know,” Fuller said. “I mean, unless you go out and vote for the people you think will will stop doing that stuff.”
At Liberty Senior Center in Randallstown, Nadia Ankrah, a 33-year-old nurse and Randallstown resident, said her main concern this primary season is school safety, specifically school shootings.
”I feel like your children are your best investment,” Ankrah said. “You want to hope they leave a legacy; you don’t want to take your child to school and then be afraid, wonder, ‘Are they going to come back?’”
Local races were bringing some voters to to the ballot box, such as in Howard County, where voters are choosing school board members and a county executive.
David Greenberg, a 61-year-old from Long Reach, said he is pleased with the education his three grown children received in the county and was voting Tuesday for the status quo on Howard’s school board.
Maryland Policy & Politics
”There are a lot of school boards around the country where people have decided there’s some boogie man that they have to go after and deal with, and I just think it’s nonsense,” he said. “I like where things are going, so I’m not trying to change things up crazily.”
Janine Pollack, another Long Reach resident, said she was casting her ballot at Long Reach High School to reelect Calvin Ball as Howard County executive.
“[Ball] has been really good for the environment, and I’m hoping he continues that,” said the 48-year-old environmental scientist at NASA.
Democrats outnumber Republicans about two-to-one among Maryland registered voters, but the GOP has held the governor’s office in three out of the past five terms. This time, with polls showing Republican voters about evenly divided between Cox and Schulz, the influence of Trump weighed heavy on the race.
In the Republican stronghold of Westminster, 64-year-old Kevin Brennan said he voted for Cox because he carries the former president’s endorsement. But 81-year-old Charles Ryan said it was for that reason that he voted for Schulz.
“There’s been enough of Trump,” Ryan said.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Emily Opilo, Matt Cohen, Brooks DuBose, Daniel Belson, Allana Haynes, Jason Fontelieu, Sherry Greenfield and Molly Spence contributed to this article.