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Here’s how $1.3 million was spent to educate Maryland voters on election

A report detailing how Maryland spent about $1.3 million on an educational campaign for the June primary was released ahead of a legislative hearing Tuesday in which the State Board of Elections staff and chairman appeared to discuss lessons learned from the primary.

The report, authored by communications firm KO Public Affairs, shows that a team of six media and marketing firms were deployed to buy advertisements, contact media and reach out to stakeholders ahead of the June 2 primary, which was Maryland’s first attempt at statewide election held primarily by mail.

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State election officials announced the size of the media campaign at a previous legislative hearing in May. At the time, several legislators questioned whether the spending was enough to reach voters ahead of the election, which was postponed due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

The State Board of Elections was criticized on election night and in the days after the election for what many perceived as a lack of communication and transparency.

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According to the report, 80% of the money allocated to the campaign was spent to buy advertising and pay Baltimore firm Mission Media to design and produce those ads. Of the remaining money, 70% was used to pay several other firms, including Sandy Hillman Communications, GreiBO, Cool & Associates and Campfire Communications, to reach out to stakeholders, pitch stories to news outlets, offer translation services, buy Spanish language advertising and to engage with Baltimore voters.

The report states that millions of Marylanders were reached via traditional media, including television and radio. An additional 4.6 million people saw at least a portion of the online videos produced by the campaign, and there were more than 550,000 clicks on ads, according to the report.

“While there were communications challenges during the campaign, most notably with ballots arriving later than expected and the need to add dropbox and voting locations in Baltimore City, the campaign was successful in helping to educate Maryland voters about the election, how to vote-by-mail, where to vote in person or drop their ballots, and how to obtain a ballot if their ballot did not arrive by mail," the report states.

Campfire Communications was selected to deliver the message to the media in May that Baltimore’s ballots were being delivered late. An email sent to reporters around 5 p.m. on a Sunday explained the city’s ballots were mailed between May 15 and May 16. It did not note that they were due to be mailed May 8 or that officials previously confirmed that date with media outlets.

The State Board of Elections later blamed mail vendor SeaChange for mailing the ballots late despite repeatedly assuring the state that they were mailed on time. SeaChange officials say Maryland is at fault for the late ballots because state officials were late in providing voters lists to the company.

Two additional in-person voting centers and 10 extra ballot drop box locations were added in Baltimore to accommodate voters in light of the late ballots. That proved to be insufficient on Election Day, when voters flooded the in-person locations and caused lengthy lines.

Elected officials, candidates and voters were also sharply critical of the State Board of Elections communication on the night of the primary. City returns were initially posted to the state’s website but were removed after an error was discovered with District 1 ballots for city voters. State election officials did not offer an explanation for the vanishing results until late the next morning.

Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy administrator of elections, acknowledged during a panel discussion last week that officials could have been more transparent about what was happening.

“It had no impact on the ballot counting, but when something like that happens, it clearly makes people anxious,” she said. “We should have been more quick in explaining what happened.”

The media campaign report shows the State Board of Elections hired two firms to manage the educational campaign for minority communities. GreiBO focused on media for black voters while Cool & Associates targeted the Hispanic community. Advertisements were placed in the Afro-American, the Washington Informer, EL Zol and Radio Poder among others.

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