Maryland’s local election board directors are calling on state officials to hold a hybrid vote-by-mail election in the fall with more in-person voting centers, saying it is too late to plan for a traditional election.
In a letter to the governor, legislative leaders and top state election officials, the Maryland Association of Election Officials said Friday that its members are best prepared to hold a hybrid election amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The local election officials said they feared they would be “set up to fail” in a regular election with voting at precincts because of a shortage of personal protective gear, election judges and viable locations for polling places. Many neighborhood voting sites, such as schools and senior centers, remain closed or off limits during the pandemic.
“While we acknowledge there were some problems with implementation of the primarily vote-by-mail June 2, 2020, primary election, valuable lessons have been learned and there is adequate time to remedy those issues before the general election,” the association wrote.
Due to the pandemic, Maryland held its primary mostly by mail. All active voters across the state were mailed a ballot and encouraged to return it via the mail or at an official drop box. Those who could not vote via mail or did not wish to were able to vote in person at limited voting centers offered in each county and Baltimore City.
Participation in the primary was high, but multiple problems were reported. They included long lines at polling centers, ballots mailed fewer than two weeks before the election, incorrect dates on ballots and a printing error that required thousands of Baltimore ballots to be manually copied onto new forms.
State officials have yet to decide how the Nov. 3 election will be run. The State Board of Elections asked Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to make a decision by mid-June. That hasn’t happened, and Hogan has asked the state board to issue a report by July 3 on the mistakes made during the primary.
This week, top Senate Democrats recommended a hybrid election plan that would include mailing ballots to all state voters while offering more in-person voting centers. The state Senate Republican Caucus then called for a traditional election, saying the primary was a failure.
In their letter, the local election directors suggested mailing ballots to all active voters.
But first, a postcard would be sent to all active and inactive voters across the state by July 31. The postcards would let active voters know that a ballot will arrive and remind them to update their addresses. Inactive voters — those who have had at least two pieces of election mail returned to the sender in the past — would be warned via the postcards that a ballot will not be mailed to them.
The directors warned against sending a vote-by-mail ballot application to all voters, as some state officials have suggested. The local directors said that would be too labor-intensive for local election boards, who do not have the funding to hire more employees.
The local directors also suggested offering in-person voting at all preestablished early voting centers in each jurisdiction across the state, starting Oct. 29 and continuing through Election Day. Drop boxes would also be offered at each early voting center under the directors’ plan, as well as at local election board offices, starting Oct. 6. The locations of the voting centers and the drop boxes would be advertised inside ballots mailed to voters, under the plan.
Ballots should be mailed to voters by Sept. 19, the local election directors said, to give local boards time to process them as they return. The group urged the state to keep the existing ballot envelopes for the November election, in spite of complaints from some voters about their signatures being visible on the outside of the return envelope.
The directors’ suggested ballot counting begin as early as Sept. 20, although results would be embargoed until election night.
The Maryland Association of Election Officials represents election staff in all 24 jurisdictions across Maryland, said President David Garreis, and the recommendations were considered by the group’s board of directors. Although Maryland has undergone enormous changes to its election system in 2020 due to the pandemic, the association has not weighed in on the discussions until now.
“We’re not a political organization. We try to be completely apolitical,” Garreis said. “But in this case, we thought it was a special scenario, given how much focus there’s going to be on the general election and how much discussion there’s been about the primary election. We’re the people in the trenches who are going to be performing all these tasks. We felt it was important that our voice be heard.”
The directors urged state officials to make a final decision by July 10 about how to carry out the election.
The ballots will include the presidential race, U.S. House seats and two statewide referendums, as well as local ballot questions.