Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday sharply defended his plan to hold a traditional general election — with voting at about 1,600 polling places — during a pandemic, saying the goal is to offer Marylanders the flexibility to vote in person or by mail.
“There has been a lot of misinformation, a lot of partisan politics in recent weeks and I’m going to take a moment to set the record straight once and for all,” the Republican said during a State House news conference.
On July 8, Hogan outlined a his plan for a Nov. 3 election with every precinct open to voters on Election Day. He also ordered the State Board of Elections to send every voter an application for a mail-in ballot.
Democrats and voter advocacy groups have expressed concerns about the safety of voters and election workers due to the highly contagious coronavirus. Some have suggested the state use procedures employed for the June 2 primary, when 44 polling places were open statewide but all of Maryland’s more than 3.5 million registered, eligible voters were sent a ballot without needing to request one.
Hogan said Wednesday that there were “rampant” problems with the mostly vote-by-mail primary, which he called “an unmitigated disaster.” He said many Marylanders received ballots late or were sent incorrect ballots, and that the election was plagued by long lines to vote in person.
A State Board of Elections report found that 95% of the ballots were delivered to voters on or before May 30. While voters waited in lines at the handful of in-person voting centers in each county, the state board said only 2.3% of the almost 1.5 million people who voted chose that method and everyone in line at poll close had a chance to vote. Voting by mail proved popular, with 97% of voters using those ballots. Turnout reached 41.8%.
The governor said he demanded a full review, but that the situation has since “descended into a typical partisan argument.”
He also said the state board was “unable to reach any kind of consensus” on a format for the November election. But the board, which is composed of Republicans and Democrats, united in opposing a traditional election. It divided along party lines on the other two options: a primarily vote-by-mail election like the primary and a hybrid plan of sending all voters a ballot application and opening more, but not all, polling places.
State Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone said Tuesday that the elections board will need $20 million more to execute Hogan’s plan. She said her agency plans to submit a budget amendment to cover costs such as cleaning supplies for polling places, protective equipment for workers, and postage and printing for sending vote-by-mail applications and ballots.
Hogan said Maryland is one of 14 states planning to mail ballots or applications to every voter. The state has more than 4 million eligible, registered voters.
Turnout is usually high during a presidential election year such as this.
Local election directors have said they don’t know how they can open enough polling places and find enough workers to pull off such an election.
In crafting his plan, Hogan said he was trying to offer voters “the most choices possible,” including early in-person voting, voting by mail, and voting on Election Day.
“We’re encouraging everyone to vote by mail. If you’re unable to vote by mail, by state law we have eight days of early voting,” the governor said.
The number of coronavirus cases in Maryland surpassed the 80,000 mark Wednesday. While the number of confirmed cases has been rising, Hogan said key metrics such as the positivity rate — now at 4.49% — remain in check.
Hogan expressed concern that a surge in cases in other states has ramped up the demand for testing nationwide, hindering the ability of commercial labs to quickly process tests.
In April, the governor announced that the state bought 500,000 COVID-19 tests from LabGenomics, a South Korean company.
Hogan said at his news conference Wednesday that those tests continue to be the “centerpiece of our long-term strategy. We’ve utilized tens of thousands of these tests on our high-priority hot spots and outbreaks, including our effort to fight the virus in nursing homes and our poultry plants.”
It’s unclear exactly how many of the tests have been used so far, but Hogan said Wednesday that the state is “utilizing a couple thousand of these tests a day on those most important priority cases.”
He said demand is so high that additional tests may need to be obtained from the company for the fall and winter.