The date was March 25, and the fate of democracy in Maryland rested on five sets of shoulders.
A pandemic had just swept into the region. Hospitals scrambled to prepare for a surge in patients. Assisted-living facilities, home to thousands of the state’s most vulnerable residents, were in lockdown. Schools were closed, and Gov. Larry Hogan had ordered nonessential businesses to close their doors.
The Maryland State Board of Elections faced its own quandary: holding an election amid the chaos. Voters were expected to participate in record numbers in the presidential year, and Baltimore had a hotly contested mayoral race. A replacement for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings also had to be chosen.
The outlook was bleak. The majority of Maryland’s election judges were older, making them more likely victims of the virus. And there was no way to guarantee personal protective equipment for them when hospitals were running into shortages.
“The more people that we have doing this, the more casualties we’re going to take,” board Chairman Michael Cogan soberly told his colleagues as he made the case for the unthinkable: Shutting down in-person voting.
The board’s decision that day to hold the June 2 primary entirely by mail was the first of dozens of high-stakes calls the five unpaid Maryland residents would make in the months to come.
Some, like that first painstaking call, would be overturned under threat of a lawsuit. Many others have stood, coalescing into an instruction manual of sorts, written in real time, for voting by mail in a state that had never mailed ballots to even 10% of its voters.
The panel of Republicans and Democrats reached many of its decisions unanimously, a feat in an era when bipartisanship is rare. And the group worked amid increasing rhetoric against alternative methods of voting, flames fanned most notably by Republican President Donald Trump.
Cogan found a somewhat unlikely ally that March day in board member Malcolm Funn. The child of a prominent Black Calvert County educator, Funn had felt there were few rights more precious than voting. When he was growing up, people were denied their fundamental right, and he vowed to protect it.
But COVID-19 turned Funn’s world upside-down. He was a resident of an assisted-living community, suddenly without visitors. His meals were being delivered. His temperature was taken every time he left the facility.
“We don’t know who has it, who will have it. People could be carriers,” Funn said. “No way should we jeopardize the lives of anyone for the right to vote.”
Their board positions — volunteer service sold to all involved as once-monthly meetings on an often dry topic — this year have multiplied to weekly sessions, sometimes more. Members started attending remotely, sometimes from moving cars or out of state.
The documents delivered to each for review ballooned to fat stacks of emergency legislative changes, maps of hundreds of new voting centers and scathing letters from unhappy parties on both sides of the aisle.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, too, would take aim, chiding the board during news conferences for the speed at which they operated, the ballots delivered late to voters during the primary and what he saw as indecision.
Many of the people condemning the State Board of Elections have no idea whom they’re actually mad at. The five are almost completely unknown outside of election advocates and political party circles. That probably makes them an easier target, said Vice Chair Patrick “P.J.” Hogan, who is not related to the governor.
“Everybody hates Congress, but they love their congressman,” Hogan said. “Lots of people criticize the Postal Service, but they love their mailman. I think it’s an entity that is easy to lodge criticism at because it’s unknown. No one knows us.”
Hogan, 58, was a state senator from 1994 to 2007 representing Montgomery County. The Democrat continued to work in the political sphere, doing government relations for the University System of Maryland before moving to consulting work.
“I look at it from all aspects: ‘How does this work as a voter? How does this work as a candidate? How does this fit with what the legislature has put into law?’” Hogan said.
“Elections are complicated. Much more complicated than most people are willing to understand.”
More complicated still in the midst of a pandemic.
Board members believed they were making the right call for public health when they decided to close all polling places for the June primary. But those health concerns ran up against constitutional protections.
By mid-April, the panel reversed itself to accommodate disabled voters, who use ballot-marking devices at in-person polling places, preserving their right to vote independently and privately.
Rights were at stake, but also people’s lives.
“What’s the upper limit on deaths for you to have this particular mode of voting?” Cogan said plainly during the particularly intense session when the board begrudgingly voted on the reversal.
Even as fear from the pandemic settled, decisions haven’t gotten easier. In August, troubled by the governor’s order to open all 1,600 Maryland polling places, P.J. Hogan told fellow board members he “literally couldn’t sleep last night.”
By the end of the meeting, he had successfully lobbied his colleagues to plead with the governor to open a far smaller number of voting centers. They succeeded.
Cogan, too, admits to “absolutely, absolutely” tossing and turning over Election 2020. To the five-year veteran of the board, elections are old hat. Crisis situations, too, are nothing new to the career U.S. Army lieutenant colonel turned prosecutor. But Cogan has never seen the two collide like this.
“The word unprecedented is thrown around a lot, and it’s useful. But I think it understates what we went through,” Cogan said. “What we were faced with was doing things in a completely different way, under an extremely compressed time schedule.” The Republican from Queen Anne’s County declined to give his age.
After a contentious March meeting, the board had just over a month to transition to voting by mail for 500,000 voters in an April special primary to select candidates to replace Cummings. And by May, it had again pivoted, mailing ballots to 4 million voters across the state for the June primary.
Those logistics have been a great challenge, but so is helping the public to understand that complexity, said Bill Voelp, 53, a Pasedena Republican who has served on the board for about a year. Voelp, who runs a bottling business, has eight years of experience on a local election board.
“You hear a lot of people say, ‘If you can go to Walmart, you can go vote,’ ” Voelp said. “I wish they understood it’s more of a balancing act with resources.”
Funn, 75, said it has been “interesting” to find the sweet spot between protecting public health and voting rights. The board’s only Black member, the Democrat said he has approached his work since joining the board in 2018 through the lens of the disenfranchised.
“To me, that’s paramount,” he said of voting rights. “But human life takes precedence over that. I felt people should not jeopardize their health to vote.”
While Funn has made some concessions, at other times he’s pushed back. When board member Kelley Howells suggested trying to dissuade voters who wanted emailed ballots — out of concern for how long it would take to count them — Funn spoke up. People might feel they were being discouraged from voting altogether, he argued.
“There’s a culture out there where their right to vote has been impinged upon for years,” Funn said. “You may not understand."
Howells, a Prince George’s County resident and Republican, brings a legal mind to the panel. The Oregon native, 59, is a graduate of the University of Maryland law school who chose to home-school her children rather than practice law. She has been on the board since 2015.
Discussions of the minutiae of election law pique Howells' interest. Legal questions have only increased during the pandemic, but the turnaround time between meetings has also shortened, leaving little time for the methodical preparation she prefers.
Howells said she has a policy of not criticizing leaders for decisions made in the earliest days of the pandemic, particularly knowing what the election board has faced. But the governor’s contention that the June primary was an “unmitigated disaster” was “way over the top,” she said.
All the board members have been staunch defenders of the state elections staff, led by Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone, who also was the target of criticism this year. Some, including Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, called for Lamone’s resignation after the primary.
“There were some things that happened that shouldn’t have happened, but we’ve never done an election by mail before,” Howells said. “We had to make it up as we went along."
Governor Hogan emphasized errors from the primary, including several involving a ballot printing contractor, in initially deciding to open all polling places in the general election and refusing to automatically send a ballot to every voter.
While the board split along party lines over universal mail-in voting for the general election, it was unanimous in opposing the opening of all 1,600 polling places and eventually persuaded the governor to cut back significantly on the number of sites that will offer in-person voting Nov. 3.
Cogan refused to directly address the governor’s criticisms and instead praised his colleagues. An avid reader who once hunted for the perfect analogy to cap a closing argument, the board’s chair has a penchant for boosting his fellow board members with portentous quotations.
“ ‘It’s not the critic who counts,’ ” Cogan cited from a Theodore Roosevelt speech in June as the board was under fire.
“ ‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.’