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Despite primary day lines, Maryland election board defends limited voting sites amid legislators’ questions

Members of the Maryland State Board of Elections defended several key decisions, including the number of voting sites offered during the June 2 primary. In this June 2, 2020, photo, voters wait as a line snakes its way beyond the length of Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore.
Members of the Maryland State Board of Elections defended several key decisions, including the number of voting sites offered during the June 2 primary. In this June 2, 2020, photo, voters wait as a line snakes its way beyond the length of Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron)

Members of the Maryland State Board of Elections defended Tuesday several key decisions, including the number of voting sites offered during the June 2 primary, while the state’s elections administrator admitted she made a mistake in removing returns from the state’s website without explanation.

State legislators questioned elections officials during a joint committee hearing to assess the state’s performance in the primary. While such a postmortem on state elections is not unusual, the hearing took on additional importance because it examined the state’s first attempt at voting by mail and looked for lessons to apply in carrying out the November presidential election.

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Michael Cogan, chairman of the State Board of Elections, said elections officials performed “magnificently" under adverse conditions.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordered an April special election to be held by mail and delayed the statewide primary until June 2 due to the global coronavirus pandemic. The board opted to also hold the primary by mail, with limited in-person voting centers.

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“Their standard is quite literally perfect,” Cogan said of the public’s expectations for election officials. “That’s a hard standard to meet under any circumstances. I would submit it’s virtually impossible in a crisis, and a crisis was upon us.”

The board has been scrutinized following the primary, which saw thousands of voters make use of the limited voting sites. In Baltimore and other highly populated areas, many voters waited more than an hour to cast ballots. Voting rights advocates reported some voters never reached the polls or ballot drop boxes due to crowding.

Patrick “P.J.” Hogan, the board’s vice chair, said he was one of the members of the board who pushed for limiting the number of voting centers. He said the board was briefed by the state Health Department before making the decision in March, and an agency representative warned that the COVID-19 outbreak would peak around July 4. The governor later denounced that timeline, saying it was not made on behalf of his administration.

“You have to remember what was going on, what the health situation was at that time,” Patrick Hogan said. “That’s what we were told at the time when we had to make those decisions.”

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Several legislators questioned why the long lines appeared to disproportionately affect areas with more minority voters. Democratic Sen. Arthur Ellis of Charles County said states that have had the most success with voting by mail lean Republican. In Maryland, problems with the race popped up in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, he noted — areas with more African Americans.

“Why does it seem in the red areas that people seem to get into their location ... but in these majority black areas, we have problems all the time?" Ellis asked.

Cogan said he would be willing to analyze election data.

“I would welcome us taking a look at certain areas of systemic breakdown and see if we could in fact attribute them to a particular cohort,” he said.

State Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone, a state employee who works for the State Board of Elections, addressed questions about Baltimore’s earliest returns. The state posted them on its website late on primary day, then removed them overnight without explanation. Late the next morning, the state reposted the data, minus numbers from a City Council district race it had identified as incorrect. It only then explained the withdrawal of the city’s data.

Democratic Del. Nick Mosby of Baltimore, who won the primary for City Council president, called the move “haphazard” and criticized the board for a lack of transparency.

“We should not have done that,” Lamone said. “We should have been quick to tell people what was going on, and we’ll make sure it never happens again.”

Leadership for the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee were provided a report Tuesday detailing how the state Board of Elections spent a more than $1 million budgeted for public education on the primary. However, the communications campaign was not discussed during the hearing.

Lamone gave limited answers when questioned about a ballot printing vendor that the State Board of Elections staff blamed for sending ballots to city voters a week late, leaving them less than two weeks to submit them.

Democratic Del. Alonzo Washington of Prince George’s County said election officials are always quick to blame vendors for mistakes.

“It’s always the vendor, the vendor,” he said. “Are we suing this vendor? What are we doing to hold this vendor accountable?”

Lamone said she has been advised by the state attorney general’s office to avoid discussing any potential litigation in public.

The vendor, SeaChange, has a contract that continues until the end of the year, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The board has circulated a “request for information” to printing vendors and asked for ballot samples, Lamone said.

“I don’t want to wait too long on this, because if states continue to go to all-mail ballots, there’s not going to be enough printers around the country to print all these ballots," Lamone said.

Lamone has asked the governor to make a decision by mid-June about whether the November election will be held via mail. No decision has been announced.

Baltimore City Board of Elections Director Armstead Jones defended his office Tuesday after he was asked by Democratic Del. Stephanie Smith of Baltimore about the perception that his staff was working “banker’s hours” during the canvass. Baltimore’s post-primary ballot count began June 4 and was not certified until Monday.

Jones said his team worked until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. daily. Smith noted that Howard County’s elections staff worked later.

“When I see another jurisdiction is staying until 11 p.m., it left me wanting a little more performance,” she said.

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