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Despite problems in Baltimore’s 1st mostly mail-in election, advocates find silver lining: a swell in turnout

Jocelyn Bush opens ballots at the Baltimore City Board of Elections warehouse as the count of votes from the June 2 election continued on Saturday. The process hasn't always been pretty, and it still isn't over, but it has increased voter turnout.
Jocelyn Bush opens ballots at the Baltimore City Board of Elections warehouse as the count of votes from the June 2 election continued on Saturday. The process hasn't always been pretty, and it still isn't over, but it has increased voter turnout. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

First, there were problems getting accurate ballots mailed out on time to hundreds of thousands of Baltimore voters. Come primary day Tuesday, city residents still missing their ballot or skeptical about a mail-in election donned masks and waited in hourslong lines to vote in person.

Then, there were delays scanning and counting all the paper ballots that did arrive by mail, leaving the outcome of the mayoral race and others in doubt days later.

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Still, amid frustrations with the rollout of Maryland’s first statewide attempt at a mostly mail-in election, voter advocates see a silver lining: an overwhelming turnout among Baltimore voters that already eclipses the 2016 Democratic primary even before all the votes have been tallied.

“Despite the negligence and incompetence out of the state board, the people of this city have not allowed themselves to be thwarted,” said the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.

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By Saturday evening, elections officials reported they had already registered receipt of more than 145,000 ballots in the city’s all-important Democratic primary — 48% of eligible voters. And ballots were still coming in.

In contrast, there was 45% Democratic turnout in 2016.

General Assembly leaders have called for legislative oversight hearings to understand the problems that plagued the 2020 primary in Baltimore and elsewhere in the state. The pressure to find solutions is high, as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan could soon decide whether the state will hold its general election mostly by mail, too.

Other states are embracing vote-by-mail come November in an attempt to limit large gatherings and protect residents from the coronavirus. But it would be a big shift in tradition, and some worry a lack of resources and Republican President Donald Trump’s vocal opposition to voting by mail could suppress turnout. For others, though, the swell of voters at primaries this spring has some experts predicting a huge wave.

“Despite the disastrous implementation in Baltimore of vote-by-mail, we still had higher turnout than last cycle," said Chris Warshaw, a George Washington University professor who studies elections. “This should be encouraging in general for people concerned about turnout suffering.”

Hogan said in a radio interview last week that it’s too soon to determine whether November’s general election also will be largely by mail. The state elections board asked the Republican governor to make a decision by mid-June.

“We’re going to obviously know a lot more as we get closer to November as to where we are with the COVID-19 crisis," Hogan said. “Hopefully, it will be much safer and we’ll be able to get people out to vote in a safe and effective manner.”

People are highly engaged politically at the moment, analysts say, whether it’s over the presidential contest, the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic downturn, or the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That could translate into a massive turnout in November.

“I’ve been calling it the storm of the century,” said Michael P. McDonald, a political scientist who tracks voter turnout nationwide. “The outstanding question is whether election officials are set up to handle it.”

In Maryland, at least, advocates say not yet.

The state mailed out millions of ballots that were labeled with the wrong election date. Then, an out-of-state vendor failed to send hundreds of thousands of ballots to Baltimore voters for nearly a week.

That contributed to long lines on primary day. Some were there because they preferred to vote in-person, while others said they never received their ballot in the first place and didn’t have enough time to find another solution.

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On primary night, election officials posted preliminary returns in city races before suddenly deleting them about 2 a.m. Wednesday with no explanation. Then, as officials were figuring out what led to incorrect returns in the 1st District City Council race in Southeast Baltimore, they did not count ballots Wednesday.

On Thursday, officials announced that the day’s canvass would be devoted to the Democratic primary in the 1st District. That’s where the state elections board reported incorrect returns Tuesday, due to a printing error.

Some have called for state elections administrator Linda Lamone to resign. City elections director Armstead Jones has also come under fire.

The mistakes and delays have frustrated residents and candidates alike, keeping them in limbo. The three most powerful positions in Baltimore are all up for grabs, including the critical mayor’s seat.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republican voters by nearly 10 to 1 in Baltimore, and the result of the Democratic primary has for decades determined who would hold the city’s top offices.

Results are scheduled to be certified by Friday.

Jones marveled at the size of the city turnout as he stood Saturday in the warehouse where machines opened envelopes, and face-masked workers stacked ballots to be scanned.

“That number goes up each day with the mail coming in,” Jones said. “They’re still coming in from the mail.”

The city’s primaries used to be held in off years that were not aligned with other major elections. The 2011 Democratic primary for mayor, for example, only drew about 74,000 voters.

Embracing vote-by-mail permanently could lead to increases in turnout, election experts say. Research has found that turnout modestly went up in states that moved to voting by mail on a permanent basis.

But Maryland’s switch was relatively last-minute and required a significant voter education effort, for which there was little time. Activists worked hard to encourage high turnout this year. When that indeed materialized, elections officials didn’t seem “nimble” enough to handle it, said Nykidra Robinson, founder of Black Girls Vote.

Robinson, whose group seeks to increase voter engagement, said the problems were baffling because the city and Baltimore and Howard counties had just gone through a special election to fill the remainder of the late Elijah Cummings’ congressional term.

Robinson is among those calling for accountability from elections officials and a plan on how to fix problems before November. Hers and other groups have organized a virtual “election debrief” Thursday with the State Board of Elections.

The vendor that prints Maryland’s ballot has been criticized for its role in the delivery delays. The company’s contract includes the November general election and runs through December.

Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute & Coalition, said while voting by mail is spreading in popularity, implementation matters.

Her organization has been assembling best practices, such as advising states to create a “ballot tracker” for voters to use. In Baltimore, some voters have been left wondering if their ballots were ever received because of some vague wording on the state website.

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“That kind of accountability and transparency is really important,” McReynolds said.

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Looking ahead to November, McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, said the key will be to spread out the election process as much as possible, such as by offering in-person early voting opportunities.

“It’s like ‘flattening the curve’ with coronavirus hospitalizations,” McDonald said. “How can you spread them out? What can you do to extend in-person early voting to get more people processed early?”

The metaphor is apt, given that he is among those who fears a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak in the coming months as election offices are gearing up for November.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some problems experienced by Baltimore and other jurisdictions Tuesday, such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are “simply a matter of volume.“

She sees a cultural change underway as the voting process shifts. Voters who have grown accustomed to learning who won before they go to bed will have to adjust if a large number of ballots won’t get counted until those postmarked on Election Day arrive later in the week.

It’s time to reconsider, she says, the tradition of staying up all night to learn the results.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Emily Opilo and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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