Despite concerns from state and local election officials about the practicality and safety of staffing polling places in November, Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday ordered them to run a regular, in-person election with every precinct open to its voters on Election Day.
To accommodate anyone who feels unsafe casting a ballot in person because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hogan also ordered the State Board of Elections in a letter to mail each voter an application for an absentee ballot.
He said on the “C4 Show” on WBAL-AM on Wednesday that a “normal” election would resolve problems Maryland had in the June 2 primary, which was mostly a vote-by-mail format in which ballots were automatically sent to 4 million eligible voters choosing nominees for offices such as president and mayor of Baltimore. Some voters said they didn’t receive ballots in time, and there were long lines at in-person voting centers and at ballot drop boxes on primary day.
“We’re very frustrated with the way the election was handled in the primary by the State Board of Elections and the city board of elections,” Hogan said. “Mistakes were definitely made, and it was unacceptable and inexcusable that they screwed up so much with respect to getting the ballots out on time and getting them out to everybody.”
Amy Cruice of the ACLU of Maryland said despite the hiccups with some ballots arriving late or having errors, the primary was a success from the standpoint of voter participation. Turnout was high, and 97% of those who voted did so with their mailed ballots, she said.
“We will lose all of the gains we made in the June primary, in terms of being able to give people a safe and accessible way to vote,” said Cruice, who runs the ACLU’s election protection program in Maryland.
She said voters may be confused by the switch in formats from one election to the next, or not understand what the application is when they receive it.
“People will assume they are ballots and set them aside, and by the time they open it and realize it’s an application, it may be too late,” Cruice said.
Another voting rights advocate said Hogan’s decision will sow “chaos” in November and muddle crucial messaging needed to help voters participate.
Requiring voters to fill out an application for a mailed ballot creates a hurdle voters didn’t face during the primary, said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. She said that when the District of Columbia tried this approach for its primary, many voters didn’t receive a ballot. For the fall election, the District plans to mail a ballot to every voter.
Antoine also questioned how local elections boards can staff every polling place in Maryland. Typically, many poll workers are retirees, who are at higher risk from the coronavirus.
“How do we plan on filling all these gaps for all of the election workers? A lot of them were high risk to begin with,” she said. “It’s chaos. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Hogan rejected the input of the state elections board, as well as local elections officials. While the board was divided along party lines as to whether the state should send absentee ballot applications (the option Republican appointees favored) or just mail out ballots without waiting for requests (which had the support of the board’s Democrats), it was united in saying it could not execute a “traditional” election with each of the state’s approximately 2,000 precincts open.
Local election officials wrote to the board and to the governor, asking them to again hold a mostly vote-by-mail election.
Top state elections administrators did not respond Wednesday to requests for interviews.
The appointed Maryland State Board of Elections issued a brief statement saying it will follow Hogan’s orders.
“The board will move forward with plans for a traditional general election on November 3rd and will expand efforts to promote voting by mail, early voting, and voting at off-peak times,” the statement said. “The board will continue to work closely with local boards of elections, stakeholders and the general public to conduct a safe and accessible general election.”
Ashley Oleson, state director for the League of Women Voters of Maryland, said she was disappointed that Hogan did not “heed the warnings and advice of local election officials.”
The league, too, is concerned that election officials will have trouble recruiting enough poll workers to staff a traditional election, she said.
Still, Oleson said the league is prepared to help with an educational campaign to make sure voters understand the process, and the group will be monitoring before and on Election Day to ensure the process is safe.
In a statement, the Republican governor said his approach “will maximize participation in the November election by offering voters more options while minimizing confusion and risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For the primary, Hogan delayed the date from April 28 to June 2 and ordered that it be held primarily by mail. There was no early voting, but at least one in-person voting center opened in each county on primary day for people who didn’t want to vote by mail.
Local elections officials who are responsible for the logistics of running the election warned last month that they would be “set up to fail” if they were required to return in the fall to a traditional election format.
In its letter to the governor, leaders of the Maryland Association of Elections Officials said they lacked personal protective equipment and enough election judges. They noted that many of their typical precinct locations remain off-limits, such as schools and senior centers that have been closed to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
They suggested again mailing ballots to all voters, plus offering limited in-person voting, early voting and drop boxes for completed mail ballots. They advocated for more voter education and a process to make sure voters update their address, if needed.
They also strongly opposed the idea of mailing ballot applications to all voters, arguing it would be too time-consuming to process the applications and then send ballots.
Hogan said the polls would be set up in November with protective gear and sanitizing equipment.
His plan does not include the ballot drop boxes, which proved popular in the primary and in a special election in April. The locked boxes, which were monitored and emptied regularly by elections officials, allowed voters to return ballots without worrying whether they might get lost or delayed in the mail.
Leading Democratic lawmakers also suggested a mainly vote-by-mail election for November, supplemented by more in-person voting locations and early voting. Senate President Bill Ferguson and Sen. Paul Pinsky, chairman of a committee that deals with election law, said in a letter that such an election “is the best approach to maximize voter participation while minimizing public health risks.”
But Republican lawmakers said a repeat of the primary’s problems would undermine confidence in the integrity of the election. They requested that absentee applications — not actual ballots — should be sent to voters.
Republican President Donald Trump, who is seeking reelection, has been arguing without evidence that voting by mail is open to widespread fraud. He tweeted Sunday that “Mail-In Voting, on the other hand, will lead to the most corrupt Election is USA history. Bad things happen with Mail-Ins.”
In Maryland, Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones issued a statement Wednesday urging the governor to make sure local elections officials have resources to safely carry out the election as he envisions, including staff, protective equipment and educational materials.
They said they hope the governor “will maintain maximum flexibility” to ensure people can still vote if the pandemic worsens or there aren’t enough election judges. Hogan’s office did not respond to questions about whether the governor is developing alternative plans should public health conditions worsen in the fall.
Elections officials had been pressing for Hogan to issue a directive on the general election so they could go forward with preparations.
Antoine said election advocates were surprised by the timing of Hogan’s announcement. They were scheduled to meet with the governor to discuss concerns about the election’s format.
“Now, we have to go back and figure out what our next steps will be,” she said. “If there is a second wave [of the virus], and I’m hoping that’s not the case, we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where the state board is scrambling to hold an election by mail again.”