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Partisan divide over voter fraud fears keeps Maryland officials from reaching consensus on Nov. 3 election method

A partisan divide over whether voter fraud is a legitimate concern in mostly mail-in elections kept Maryland officials from reaching a consensus on how they believe the state should conduct voting in the upcoming presidential election. In this June 2, 2020, photo, election official Francis Vincent (r) gives instructions to a voter at Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore.
A partisan divide over whether voter fraud is a legitimate concern in mostly mail-in elections kept Maryland officials from reaching a consensus on how they believe the state should conduct voting in the upcoming presidential election. In this June 2, 2020, photo, election official Francis Vincent (r) gives instructions to a voter at Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

A partisan divide over whether voter fraud is a legitimate concern in mostly mail-in elections kept Maryland officials from reaching a consensus on how they believe the state should conduct voting in the upcoming presidential election.

The five-member state elections board is tasked with presenting Gov. Larry Hogan a recommendation for how to hold the Nov. 3 election. It’s ultimately up to the Republican governor to make the decision — a choice complicated by great unknowns regarding how the coronavirus pandemic might be affecting society come fall.

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Because the board didn’t reach a consensus, it will issue a report to the governor later this week that makes no recommendation, but rather summarizes the opinions of both sides. Hogan said Wednesday that his office will review the report to assess how the state should hold the general election.

During its virtual meeting Tuesday, the board debated three options: a traditional election with mostly in-person voting, a hybrid model in which voters are all sent applications for mail-in ballots, or a mostly mail-in election similar to the June primary.

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The board unanimously shut down the idea of recommending a traditional election, a vast operation that would require more than 20,000 volunteers and 1,600 polling places. Local election board directors said last week that such an arrangement would set them up to fail because of a shortage of personal protective gear, election judges and viable locations for polling places, which often include schools and senior living centers.

“We know there’s not going to be a vaccine by November,” said the board’s vice chairman, Patrick J. Hogan, a Democrat who is not related to the governor.

But the members were divided between options two and three, with fears over the potential for voter fraud proving to be a sticking point between camps.

Kelley Howells, a Republican, said that in the runup to the June 2 primary, two blank ballots were mailed to her house for people who haven’t lived there in years. It would’ve been easy, she said, for her to just fill out the two ballots for her favored candidates.

It was Maryland’s first attempt at a mostly mail-in election, a somewhat last-minute switch prompted by safety concerns.

“I just do not want to flood the state with unmarked ballots,” Howells said. “I think that’s asking for trouble.”

Patrick Hogan quickly jumped back in, saying he’s unaware of any allegations of fraud stemming from the June election, in which 3.5 million ballots were mailed out.

“I don’t mind discussing factual data in making our decisions, but I worry about interspersing in this discussion unproven theories,” he said, referencing studies that found voter fraud to be exceedingly rare. “I hope we stick to the facts of what we know versus what we don’t know.”

This disagreement mirrors a national divide about voting by mail.

A recent Gallup poll found that while the majority of Americans favor voting by mail as an option in November, there’s a deep divide by political affiliation: 83% percent of Democrats said they supported such a measure, compared with 40% of Republicans, who are also much more likely to think voting by mail will lead to an increase in fraud.

President Donald Trump, a Republican, has stoked the divide, using his Twitter feed to disseminate false information about the threat of fraud.

A Washington Post analysis of data collected by three vote-by-mail states found that officials identified 372 possible cases of double-voting or voting on behalf of deceased people from a pool of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections. That amounts to 0.0025%.

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Huge turnout is expected in November, as Trump is expected to face Democrat Joe Biden for the White House.

The two Democratic members of the Maryland elections board voted in favor of holding another mostly mail-in election because they believe it’s the best way to ensure the greatest number of people can successfully vote. Under their preferred method, every eligible voter would be mailed an absentee ballot and there would be additional in-person centers open for early voting and on Election Day.

The three Republican members said they want all voters to be sent applications for mail-in ballots and be encouraged to use them, while still offering extensive in-person sites. They said this will cut down on the number of ballots “floating around.”

David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, said local election directors are in favor of a mostly mail-in election.

He said the local leaders are concerned about mailing out applications to every eligible voter, because they would then need to be sent back and processed. Many voters, Garreis said, would wait to the last minute to mail their applications back in.

“We risk a situation where voters send us an application and it’s not processed timely and they don’t get their ballot timely, so they don’t get it mailed back in time to be canvassed,” he said.

During the June primary, the state struggled to get all voters their ballots on time. At a meeting Wednesday of the state Board of Public Works, the governor said it was “inexcusable that thousands of Marylanders did not receive their ballots.”

Last week, top state Senate Democrats recommended an election plan that would include mailing ballots to all state voters while offering more in-person voting centers than in the primary. The state Senate Republican Caucus then called for a traditional election, saying the primary was a failure.

State elections administrator Linda Lamone said each option presents its own challenges.

“But as you all know, people in elections do what we have to do,” she said. “We try to make it happen as best as we possibly can.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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