The warnings from election officials and voting rights advocates have been downright apocalyptic.
“It’s chaos,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, upon hearing of Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision last week to hold a traditional election.
“This is pretty much a nightmare,” Baltimore Elections Director Armstead Jones told his board Thursday as he updated them on preparations for November’s election.
And Friday, Baltimore County’s Democratic County Executive, Johnny Olszewski Jr. asked Hogan to “revisit this misguided decision.”
”Follow CDC advice, and empower Marylanders to cast their ballots in a way that does not jeopardize public health or overextend local boards of elections,” he said.
Opposition to Hogan’s plan has grown steadily louder since the Republican governor called for the November election to be held primarily in person, with all voting precincts open as well as early voting locations.
Unlike the June primary, when voters across the state were mailed ballots as a precaution during the global COVID-19 outbreak, Hogan this time wants all voters to receive applications for absentee ballots. They will have to return the application to receive a ballot by mail, a move that voting rights advocates and top Democratic leaders have decried as an impediment to voting that could disenfranchise thousands of Marylanders.
Local election directors also have been critical of the plan, saying they cannot possibly open the thousands of polling places needed to pull off a traditional election in the midst of the pandemic nor recruit the 25,000 workers needed to staff those polls.
Given the public outcry, some remain baffled as to how Hogan reached the decision in the first place. The State Board of Elections divided on the issue of the election’s format — Democrats favored mailing ballots to all voters while Republicans wanted to send absentee ballot applications — but neither faction considered the possibility of opening all of voting locations.
The timing of Hogan’s election decision coincides with the release of his memoir, which many believe to be the precursor to a presidential bid, noted Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.
Resistance to voting by mail appeals to the conservative base, Hartley said, a move candidates often made as they position — or reposition — themselves for a presidential run.
“The stance of in-person elections, the potential for longer lines and making it more difficult to vote very much aligns with GOP insiders on voting and on the response to COVID,” Hartley said. “In-person elections send a powerful message to the base that I am one of you and I believe that mail-in ballots can cause fraud.”
Thus far, Hogan has remained unmoved by the criticism. His spokesman Mike Ricci said Thursday that the governor hopes and expects the Baltimore election officials who spoke out against the plan to promote alternatives to voting on Election Day including early voting, voting absentee and voting in-person at off-peak hours.
“He should certainly share any ideas he has, or any lessons he has learned from the problems with the primary election, with the state board,” Ricci said of Baltimore’s elections director.
John Dedie, a political science professor at Community College of Baltimore, said he thinks Hogan’s distrust of the State Board of Elections staff and board is behind his decision to seek a traditional election in November, more so than his political aspirations.
Numerous problems were reported during the primary including ballots delivered fewer than two weeks before the election to Baltimore voters, instructions delivered in Spanish but not English to voters in Prince George’s County and a printing error in Baltimore’s City Council District 1 that resulted in incorrect returns on election night.
Those issues combined with lengthy lines reported at limited in-person voting sites during the primary do not inspire confidence, Dedie said.
“We’re going to do our best … but this will be the most challenging election I’ve ever faced in 25 years.”— Guy Mickley, Howard County election director
Whatever the reasoning, Hogan’s decision presents a significant challenge for local election directors. Officials in all 24 jurisdictions across the state have spent the last week surveying their pool of existing election judges to see who is willing to work on Election Day. State officials say 25,000 workers are needed to staff a full complement of voting sites.
In Howard County, between 1,200 and 1,300 election judges are needed to work the election, but so far only 400 have agreed to work, said Guy Mickley, the county’s election director. People have declined for various reasons, but Mickley said he was sure the pandemic factored into those decisions.
“We’re going to do our best … but this will be the most challenging election I’ve ever faced in 25 years,” Mickley said.
Election officials also are contacting past polling locations to see if officials are willing to allow their facilities to be used for voting. Jones, Baltimore’s election director, said Thursday that virtually all of the senior centers he has contacted thus far have said no due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus among susceptible elderly patrons. Statewide, senior and community centers typically make up about 9% of polling places, according to state data.
Churches also are used frequently as polling places, accounting for about 10% of voting precincts statewide. Jones said some Baltimore churches have been hesitant to open their doors for voting or could require their facilities to be professional cleaned afterward at a cost of $3,000-$4,000 per location, Jones said.
Officials could have a bigger problem on their hands if schools are unavailable. About 64% of Maryland’s approximately 2,000 voting precincts are located in schools.
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Mickley said Howard County’s schools will be available for voting, however several privately-owned sites have declined. Paula Troxell, Carroll County’s deputy election director, said she also has confirmed Carroll County’s schools will be available.
Another challenge faced by the election directors are the hundreds of ballot styles that will be required in the state’s larger jurisdictions to allow precinct-level results to be tabulated. In a normal election, returns are recorded by precinct, data that candidates and election watchers use to guide their campaign activity but also to detect fraud and irregularities by comparing the information to historical data.
Precinct level results were not available for the June primary because the state used largely vote-by-mail ballots, which typically are not marked by precinct. In response to outcry from candidates and members of the Board of Elections, state election administrators pledged to deliver precinct-level results in November, although they warned the process would be labor intensive.
The result is thousands of different ballot styles. Maryland’s largest counties will have hundreds of different ballots to print and manage. Baltimore will offer 296.
While Hogan has given no indication of changing his mind on the election format, Hartley said there is still room for the governor to switch course and emerge a political winner.
“He can also hedge his bets here and portray a pragmatic governor style that wants to demonstrate optimism that we can open back up ... but later reverse and show that he was trying to weigh normalcy with the health needs of the state,” Hartley said.
But elections officials, who already have begun down the path of preparing for an in-person election, need a decision soon. State election officials have said they need to have a new ballot printing contract in place by mid-August to order materials and have time to print ballots.