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An election during a pandemic? There’s never been one like Tuesday’s Baltimore-area congressional contest

The Baltimore City Board of Elections starts counting mail-in ballots for the Special General Election for the 7th Congressional District.

Maryland’s first election since the coronavirus pandemic will not only fill a vacant Baltimore-area congressional seat but test how well voters — and the state — navigate a balloting-by-mail system that had to be hurriedly devised because of the health crisis.

There has never been a Maryland election like Tuesday’s, in which voters will decide who will complete the remainder of the 7th Congressional District term of Democrat Elijah Cummings, who died in October.

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The health crisis has shelved campaign rallies and handshaking, limited in-person voting to three sites, and left election officials to dramatically expand a vote-by-mail operation previously used only for people who requested absentee ballots.

“This is the first time Maryland has had a mail-in ballot, and who knows what that will do to participation,” said Matthew A. Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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“People are home and there is a lot less to do. When people have time on their hands, do they spend it on politics or Super Bounce Out?” Crenson said, referring to the popular video game.

The coronavirus, which has killed nearly 800 Marylanders and sickened thousands more, has commanded media attention. “There seems to be less focus on elections right now and more on the coronavirus,” said Joanne Drielak, a political science professor at Howard Community College. “That may divert some thoughts away from the election.”

Unable to stage traditional campaign events, Democrat Kweisi Mfume and Republican Kimberly Klacik have relied largely on social media in the campaign’s final days.

Mfume’s Facebook page doubles as a hub for campaign news and a source for information about the pandemic. He said his get-out-the-vote operation will mostly use phone banking and email alerts.

While the campaign will have signs at polling places as usual, voters shouldn’t expect to see volunteers out in their neighborhoods as on a typical Election Day.

“We don’t want to put anybody at risk in this campaign,” said Mfume, 71, who is seeking to reclaim the House seat he left in 1996 to become president of the NAACP.

Mfume, who calls himself a “progressive moderate,” has collected endorsements from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, among other elected officials, and more than a half-dozen city faith leaders.

Klacik, 38, is the founder of a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women enter the workforce, and is a member of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee. She gained attention last summer after appearing on Fox News to discuss videos she posted on social media showing trash and blight in the district, then represented by Cummings.

Her criticism got the attention of Republican President Donald Trump, who attacked Cummings and Baltimore on Twitter, calling the city “disgusting” and “rat and rodent infested.”

Klacik said the coronavirus pandemic forced her to scrap plans for rallies and small fundraisers, so she is using Twitter and appearing live on Facebook. Marylanders remain under an order by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to leave their homes only for essential reasons.

When Klacik did appear in public last weekend — to greet voters at a ballot drop-off at a mailbox in Hunt Valley — she said she made sure to keep her distance.

“I had my daughter with me — she is 3 — and we were waving and saying, ‘Thank you,’” she said. “We have masks for all the people that are volunteering.”

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While Maryland voters have long been able to cast absentee ballots, this is the first time the state has attempted to send mail-in ballots to all voters in a congressional district.

The 7th Congressional District is made up of parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County, and Tuesday there will be just one in-person polling place in each of those jurisdictions. While no voters will be turned away, the centers are intended for people who didn’t receive a ballot by mail and for disabled Marylanders who may prefer to vote in person on equipment that allows them to cast ballots independently and therefore privately. People who don’t wish to drop their ballots in the mail in time for a Tuesday postmark also can take them to a voting center Tuesday.

An almost entirely vote-by-mail election presents new challenges for state election officials.

In 2016, Maryland mailed out 225,653 absentee ballots for the statewide presidential election, a fraction of the 500,000 that were sent out for the 7th District race. Voters returned about 177,000 of the 2016 election ballots.

As of Saturday, 84,927 vote-by-mail ballots had been returned for Tuesday’s election. Democrats hold a 4-1 voter registration advantage in the district.

Voters must have their ballots postmarked by Tuesday or put them in a drop box by 8 p.m.

Tuesday’s election will allow officials to assess the system before June’s mail-in primary for president, Baltimore mayor, and other offices and help determine whether vote-by-mail could be a viable option beyond that.

Concerns about the coronavirus have stirred up a national debate among elected officials about whether mail-in voting should be an option for many or all states during the November presidential election.

Tuesday’s election “is being watched around the country,” Mfume said. “We are novices at mailing ballots. I don’t know if this was planned this way, but it gives the state of Maryland the opportunity to try this on a smaller scale. We’re trying to get answers to many of the questions people will have the next time around.”

Maryland’s June 2 primary was originally to be held Tuesday, but was pushed back because of the pandemic. Voters will choose not just Republican and Democratic candidates for president and mayor, but for Maryland’s eight congressional seats, including 7th District candidates who are seeking a full term beginning in January.

“It’s incredibly confusing,” 7th District voter Mitchell Trellis said of the four elections for Cummings’ former seat — a primary and a general to fill out the existing term, and another set of elections for a fresh, two-year term.

“As a retailer, if you make the retail process too complicated, people will opt out and that’s what’s happening,” said Trellis, an Mfume supporter who is chief executive officer of Remedy Columbia, a medical cannabis dispensary.

There was another concern, as well. Baltimore Democratic Del. Nick Mosby said he has been fielding questions from voters who had not received their ballots.

Mosby, chairman of a House of Delegates subcommitee on election law, asked state elections officials to investigate what appeared to be a glitch involving voters who previously requested an absentee ballot. In his letter, Mosby said it appears some of them were not included in rolls used by the vendor to send the mail-in ballots. Once the issue was identified, he said, the voters were hurriedly placed in a queue to receive a ballot by mail, but some are still waiting.

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Linda Lamone, the election board administrator, said officials worked quickly to address the issue. That included conducting a continuous audit of voter records and sending files to the mailing vendor to be printed and mailed.

Nikki Charlson, the board’s deputy administrator, said the vendor sent its last batch of ballots last Monday. Ballots that the vendor, based in Minnesota, sent this month typically have taken five days to reach voters.

But there is still time for voters to receive one online, Charlson said. Even Monday, voters can request a ballot to be emailed from their local elections office. The process isn’t instantaneous, she warned, and voters will need to have access to a printer. The printed ballot can be mailed by Tuesday or taken to a drop box. Drop boxes will be outside each polling place on Election Day and at the three local election offices in the 7th District.

Voters who have no ballot as of Election Day can vote in person. Election officials have scrambled to collect as much protective equipment for poll workers as possible, and state health officials are advising workers about how to maintain social distancing and sanitize equipment. Still, voters have expressed concern about health risks potentially posed by venturing out to cast ballots.

The state elections board said voters “are strongly encouraged to vote by mail.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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