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Maryland Senate leaders call for ‘hybrid’ election in November, with mail ballots plus more in-person voting sites

Two state Senate leaders have called for a “hybrid” election to be held in Maryland this fall that would expand the number of in-person voting locations and allow early voting, while still mailing ballots to registered voters across the state. In this June 1, 2020, photo, Leslie Parker Blyther of Baltimore places her ballot in a drop box outside the city's Board of Elections office.
Two state Senate leaders have called for a “hybrid” election to be held in Maryland this fall that would expand the number of in-person voting locations and allow early voting, while still mailing ballots to registered voters across the state. In this June 1, 2020, photo, Leslie Parker Blyther of Baltimore places her ballot in a drop box outside the city's Board of Elections office. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Two state Senate leaders have called for a “hybrid” election to be held in Maryland this fall that would expand the number of in-person voting locations and allow early voting, while still mailing ballots to registered voters across the state.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the state’s top election officials, Senate President Bill Ferguson and state Sen. Paul Pinsky urged election officials to act quickly to finalize plans for the November general election while keeping in mind the possible lingering health risks of the new coronavirus pandemic.

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“Public health experts across the country agree that it is impossible to determine the effect of COVID-19 come November,” the pair of Democrats wrote. “Therefore, a ‘hybrid mail-in-preferred’ system is the best approach to maximize voter participation while minimizing public health risks.”

Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, said the board appreciated the “thoughtful” ideas of the Senate leaders.

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“We are currently reviewing their suggestions, but we can report that work on some of the proposals has already begun. We look forward to providing the requested information and making changes as we prepare for the Nov. 3 election,” she said.

While the election is months away, election officials are awaiting a decision from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on how the contest will be conducted. The June 2 primary was held after a delay of several months due to the virus and was conducted mostly by mail — Maryland’s first attempt at a statewide primary using that method.

Election officials previously asked Hogan to make a decision on the format for the Nov. 3 election by mid-June. The governor has since asked them for a report by July 3 on mistakes made in carrying out the primary.

In their letter, Ferguson and Pinsky, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees elections, said they expect election officials to improve communication with voters, advocacy groups and legislators in the fall, regardless of the election’s format.

The letter comes a week after a joint legislative hearing at which state elected officials expressed their exasperation over problems during the primary.

Election officials outlined problems with long lines at voting sites, ballots delivered fewer than two weeks before the primary and a printing error that resulted in thousands of ballots having to be manually copied onto forms that could be scanned properly. Election staff also apologized for removing Baltimore City election results from the state’s website on primary night without an explanation for hours.

State legislators called on election officials to do better in November.

In their letter, Ferguson and Pinsky said it’s imperative the State Board of Elections not repeat the mistakes, particularly because turnout in the November election is expected to be high.

In spite of the pandemic and the broad change in voting procedure for June, the state saw high levels of turnout, particularly in Baltimore, which had several hotly contested local races. The November election interest is expected to be even higher, as voters turn their attention to the presidential race which will decide whether Republican President Donald Trump remains in office.

Ferguson and Pinsky’s proposal anticipates the possibility that Hogan may not call for an election held predominantly by mail. In that case, the pair urged the State Board of Elections to still expect a “drastic” increase in ballots returned via mail. The letter suggested mailing a vote-by-mail application by Aug. 15, in that case, to every voter in the state, regardless of their active or inactive registration status.

There are about 3.6 million active voters across Maryland, and another 205,000 inactive voters. Voters whose election-related mail has been returned twice are placed on in inactive list.

The pair also asked the board to provide documentation to legislators by July 15 showing that changes to voter information made via the Maryland Vehicle Administration have been properly reflected in the voter database. The U.S. Postal Service sent thousands of primary ballots to local election boards as undeliverable due to outdated addresses.

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Ferguson and Pinsky’s plan also called for the expansion of the ballot drop boxes that proved popular during the primary. The pair asked election officials to develop a “formula” for a number and locations of boxes and to place them along transit lines, in highly trafficked areas and with attention to historically disenfranchised voters.

Similarly, the senators requested an increase in in-person voting centers using population statistics as a guide. About 43,000 people voted in person during the primary, a number that was limited to registered Democrats and Republicans. The pair urged the state board to exercise more oversight over local boards, which made the decisions during the primary about where to locate voting sites.

If the state board doesn’t believe it has the authority to “hold local boards accountable,” the state senators offered to intervene.

“We stand ready to join the board to negotiate with Governor Hogan any potential executive order that may be necessary ahead of November general election to ensure clear lines of authority and accountability,” Ferguson and Pinsky wrote.

The senators’ hybrid plan calls for the return of early voting in Maryland on a modified basis. Early voting was not offered during the primary due to concerns about the health of poll workers. But early voting would allow for increased social distancing and participation, Ferguson and Pinsky wrote. They requested the state board adopt an early voting plan by Sept. 8.

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