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Politics

Gov. Hogan vetoes bills to allow earlier counting of mail-in ballots, expand study of Baltimore transit needs as part of final action on nearly 300 bills

Gov. Larry Hogan, finalizing the Maryland legislative session for the year, allowed nearly 300 bills to go into effect without his signature while vetoing 18 others Friday — killing bills that included efforts to speed up mass transit projects in Baltimore and to improve voting and ballot-counting as early as the upcoming July 19 primary.

The Republican governor faced a deadline this week to make his decision on the remaining bills the General Assembly passed in its 2022 session.

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He had signed and vetoed hundreds of other pieces of legislation since the session ended April 12, and many of the year’s landmark new laws already had been finalized.

Those included an expansion of abortion access in anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected this summer, the creation of a statewide paid medical and family leave program, and strengthening climate change goals.

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The changes Hogan rejected Friday to Maryland’s election law would have given local election officials more time to count mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day and to allow people to make sure their votes were counted even if they forgot to sign an absentee ballot envelope.

Voters have turned increasingly to mail-in ballots during the more than two years of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But in Maryland, election officials are prohibited from beginning the “canvassing” process — in which they open, tabulate and verify ballots — for those ballots until after Election Day.

The bill would have allowed election workers to open ballots and begin processing them up to eight business days before the first day of early voting. And for this summer’s primary only, workers also could have begun tabulating those votes — without releasing the results — before polls closed on primary day, according to an analysis of the bill.

Without early canvassing, it’s going to take longer for Marylanders to get results, and running tallies that can appear headed in one candidate’s favor on election night can “change drastically” once mail ballots are counted, said David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials and director of the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections.

For a voter who failed to sign the envelope containing their absentee ballot, the elections boards would have been required to notify them and give them up to 10 days to correct the mistake by sending in a picture of their signature by email, mail or coming in person. Starting June 1, 2023, they even would have been able to text a picture of their signature to elections officials.

In his veto message, Hogan said he supports the earlier canvassing timeline and allowing voters to correct their signature-less ballots. But he said he was rejecting the bill because it lacked any way to verify the signatures in that process.

“[A]s our vote by mail numbers rise, the missing piece in this legislation is that balance — for even the appearance of impropriety or the opportunity for fraud can be enough to undermine citizens’ confidence in their electoral system,” he wrote.

Democratic state Sen. Cheryl Kagan, the bill sponsor, said the lack of a uniform statewide “curing” process for incomplete ballots will guarantee “unequal access” for voters, depending on where they live.

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“It’s really astonishing how the governor is pandering to the right wing and their election conspiracies,” she said.

Maryland PIRG, an independent public interest group, expressed its disappointment with the veto in a statement Friday evening. Director Emily Scarr said Hogan had “chosen to throw out the baby with the bathwater by ignoring the common ground he has with so many legislators and constituents from both parties.”

Hogan’s other vetoes included bills that would have affected public utilities and Baltimore transit, and allowed people to deduct their union dues from their state income taxes.

One of the bills targeting Baltimore’s public transit would have required the Maryland Department of Transportation to promptly take steps to update studies and surveys and “prepare a plan for the funding and financing of the construction and operation of the Red Line transit project,” an east-west Baltimore light rail project Hogan cancelled in 2015. The bill would have used at least $5 million from the state’s transportation trust fund to conduct the study.

Hogan, in his veto letter on that bill, said the state already has directed about $12 million to the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan to fund a feasibility study for the project.

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“Completing a nearly identical study in the same area would be duplicative,” wrote Hogan, calling it a “unproductive use of state funds.”

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Democratic Del. Sandy Rosenberg of Baltimore had introduced the bill.

“Governor Hogan’s veto of this legislation rejects an important step towards working for a cleaner and more prosperous future for the Baltimore region,” Rosenberg said in a statement.

Another veto killed the creation of a new commission that would have been designed to review previous studies and make new evaluations of the Baltimore area’s transit needs. The Greater Baltimore Transit Governance and Funding Commission would have made recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor on funding and other necessary steps to improve mass transit.

Hogan, however, said that would have duplicated work within the transportation department’s transit administration, and the outcomes could “contradict the state’s goals for transit.” He also criticized it for focusing only on the Baltimore region.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, tweeted that the governor’s veto was “shortsighted.”

“The Baltimore region needs and deserves a regional approach to addressing transportation needs,” Olszewski said.


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