As states across the nation grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, stringent public health measures have disrupted more than the lives of millions of Americans and the businesses on which they relied. The outbreak also upended an election season that was just getting underway when the first U.S. cases of the virus were reported.
Locally, the outbreak, which has sickened thousands of Marylanders and killed hundreds more, led Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to postpone the state’s April primary until June 2 and call for a first in the state’s history — a special general election held almost entirely by mail.
With that election for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ 7th Congressional District seat ongoing — ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday or placed in drop boxes by 8 p.m. that day — the first test of the mail-in system is about to peak. State officials will use what happens over the next several weeks to refine plans for the June mail-in primary and help determine whether vote-by-mail could be a viable option beyond that.
Asked Tuesday on ABC’s “The View” talk show about mail-in voting for the November election, Hogan said no decision had been made, but officials will be looking at how the April special election and the June primary work.
“We’ve asked our state board of elections to study what happens [for] the November election,” he said. "We still have some time to take a look at that, but here for the primary in Maryland, we did push for and support mail-in ballots, which I think is going to be a great test to see how that functions and see how it works.”
Maryland’s April 28 special election also offers a test case nationally for how voting by mail may or may not alter voter turnout, including along party lines.
Still, some political observers caution against reading too much into the election’s result, which will decide who succeeds Cummings for the remainder of his term — Democrat Kweisi Mfume or Republican Kimberly Klacik. There are other factors to consider, such as the district’s high number of registered Democrats. They account for 81% of the voters in the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
“The disadvantages that Republicans have in that district don’t go away,” said Mileah Kromer, an assistant professor of political science at Goucher College. “Mail-in ballots are not the problem. The problem is the lopsided party registration numbers.”
In other states, the concept of voting by mail this spring has been meet with considerable opposition, particularly from GOP lawmakers concerned large-scale voting by mail benefits Democratic candidates.
Wisconsin Republicans blocked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ last-minute effort to mail ballots to voters, forcing an in-person election April 7. In Georgia, state House Speaker David Ralston argued a proposal to return ballots by mail would be “devastating” to the Republican Party.
GOP President Donald Trump also has weighed in against voting by mail even though he voted in 2018 and again in February using absentee ballots.
“You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he argued last month during a television appearance.
In Maryland, where the shift to voting by mail was proposed by a Republican governor, state lawmakers largely endorsed the concept, although some expressed concerns about an initial plan to bar in-person voting centers due to health concerns. The plan has been revised to allow limited voting in person for those unable to vote by mail.
Studies in states where voting by mail has become the norm suggest Maryland could see increased turnout across the spectrum. Research in Colorado and Utah showed an increase in participation among young voters, voters with no party affiliation, and women over 80.
A study done using data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey estimated that in 2016, 22% of Democrats and 19% of Republicans voted by mail in states that didn’t have full vote-by-mail elections. That same data indicated that 27% of voters age 65 and older voted by mail, compared to 18% of younger voters. Older voters traditionally lean Republican.
Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, said the move to voting by mail typically has been a bipartisan issue where it’s been adopted, such as California and Washington state. Only recently have some Republicans coalesced around opposing it, as more commentary on the issue has “percolated” from the Trump White House, she said.
Studies show modest increases in turnout for midterm and presidential elections when voters cast ballots by mail. Bigger boosts were recorded in primaries, local elections and special elections.
Under normal circumstances, that could be good news for the 7th District election, which suffered from lack of interest and 20% turnout in a special primary in February.
But the studies in other states captured election cycles in which state officials undertook robust education campaigns to make sure voters understood the new process, Kromer said.
Maryland had no time for such a campaign. Ballots were not mailed until the second week of April. State approval of the voting centers was not finalized until last week.
“It’s an anomaly and a triage election, not a regular election,” Kromer said. “I would be really hesitant to use this congressional race to make generalizations or as a test case.”
Mfume, who represented the 7th District before Cummings, supports the move to voting by mail and blamed Trump for a surge in rhetoric against it. Trump’s concern suggests he is nervous about his reelection bid and hopes to cast doubt on the results, Mfume said.
“What better target to go after than the mail-in process?” Mfume said. “All evidence shows that what has benefited is a higher turnout.”
Klacik, who founded a nonprofit organization and is a Baltimore County Republican Central committee member, also supports the switch to voting by mail for the special election. Like some other members of her party, Klacik said she is typically “not a fan” of mail-only elections, but she believes the move is the safest option for Maryland during the pandemic.
Klacik even argued against Maryland offering in-person voting, launching a fiery social media campaign against Hogan following the decision to open voting centers on April 28. The centers mean Mfume can use traditional Democratic tactics such as busing people to the polls, Klacik argued.
“If we’re supposed to be practicing social distancing and the most vulnerable people need that service, the last thing we want is to put them all in that situation," she said. “Mfume knows his base. He’s been doing this for a long time. He knows they’d rather come out and vote in person.”
Mfume called Klacik’s assertion an unfortunate “mistruth.”
“I don’t know of anybody trying to rush out to a polling place in the middle of COVID-19,” he said. “It doesn’t benefit the system. It doesn’t benefit me.”
Kromer pointed to a lack of action in the race as an indication Mfume is in a comfortable position. Outside interests haven’t jumped in to fund an education campaign for the vote-by-mail format, for instance, and neither state party seems to have made a similar investment, she noted.
“It would take a significant lift for a Republican to win in this district,” she said.