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Unlike many other states, Maryland’s legislature is moving to make it easier to vote early or by mail

Inspired by — or perhaps infuriated by — the contentious 2020 presidential election, Maryland lawmakers are pushing dozens of bills to change the way the state’s voters cast their ballots.

Maryland’s Democrat-led General Assembly is moving to make it easier to vote by mail and to vote early, partially driven by the pandemic election that saw record turnout in the state by those means.

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“Our intention is to expand convenience and accessibility for everyone. A lot of this momentum is built off this election,” said Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Democrat from Montgomery County who leads a subcommittee focused on election law.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, who are significantly outnumbered in Annapolis, are pushing bills they say would cut down on voter fraud, such as requiring identification at the polls and checking signatures on mailed ballots.

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“It’s imperative that we, as elected officials, put the necessary safeguards in while we are expanding access,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Republican minority leader in the state Senate. “The problem is the other side wants to expand access without any additional safeguards.”

Simonaire, who represents Anne Arundel County, is sponsoring a bill that would require the state to study how to verify voters’ signatures on ballots.

But with a legislative procedural deadline looming in about a week, the Republican bills are not advancing.

The debates in Annapolis come against a backdrop of conversations across the country about reforming the process of voting. In many states, Republican lawmakers are citing former President Donald Trump’s discredited claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election to push bills restricting voting, while other states and the U.S. Congress are backing legislation to make voting more accessible.

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Maryland falls in the latter category.

“There were so many lessons learned in 2020 because we couldn’t do our normal elections process” because of the pandemic, Wilkins said. “There was creativity, fast thinking and ingenuity. It created a lot of ideas of how we can better run this process.”

Wilkins is the sponsor of a bill moving forward that would allow voters to opt into a permanent vote-by-mail list. That means instead of requesting a mailed ballot for every primary and general election, voters on the list would automatically receive ballots in the mail until they move or opt out of the list.

Nearly half of voters who cast a ballot in November in Maryland did so with a ballot they received in the mail and returned either via mail or at a drop box. The popularity of mailed ballots — they’re no longer officially called “absentees” — has lawmakers looking at ways to make that method go more smoothly.

Last spring, when much of the state was locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic, ballots were mailed to all voters in a special congressional election in the Baltimore area, and then statewide for the Republican and Democratic primaries.

For the fall general election, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan used his emergency authority to send applications for mailed ballots to all registered voters, not the ballots themselves. That generated some confusion for voters, but still led to record turnout by mail.

“We predict vote-by-mail is going to be popular now that so many of our citizens were able to experience it,” Wilkins said.

Republicans, however, raised concerns about the expanded use of mailed ballots, saying there’s little way to know if a voter filled out their own ballot. They questioned whether bad actors would use the permanent mailed ballot list to influence or intimidate voters, including those who opted in to the list because they are older or have mobility issues.

Critics of signature verification measures say it is an inexact science that could lead to legitimate ballots being tossed out. They also cite a lack of evidence that voting by mail has led to voter fraud.

Wilkins’ bill passed the House of Delegates on a 95-38 vote and is under consideration in the Senate.

Some voting rights advocates wanted to go further, setting up a permanent system of mailing ballots to all voters, along with maintaining in-person voting options. Joanne Antoine, director of Common Cause Maryland, said lawmakers signaled that this year wasn’t the right time to seek universal vote-by-mail, so advocates pulled back.

“I’m hoping we can make all these improvements and then move us to vote-by-mail,” Antoine said.

Lawmakers are also examining early voting centers, including how many there should be and where they should be located. Multiple bills are in the mix that would require additional early voting centers, keeping them open for more days and have more of them accessible to public transit.

Other bills would facilitate voting in jail, as those awaiting trial or who are locked up for misdemeanors are eligible to vote but face logistical challenges to do so. There are measures to make it easier for voters with physical disabilities to cast ballots, including requiring better training for election judges and more prominent signs to alert voters to accommodations.

Other legislation under consideration would establish a consistent system for allowing voters to fix problems with mailed-in ballots, such as forgetting to sign them, a process known as “curing” a ballot.

And lawmakers have expressed interest in improving privacy for voters, including an issue raised by Republicans: ensuring a voter’s party affiliation is not on the outside of a ballot envelope.

“The Maryland legislature has generally conveyed their commitment to making sure all eligible voters can participate and there aren’t unnecessary barriers to do so,” said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, a nonprofit group that advocates for public interest issues, including voting access and campaign finance reform.

Sen. Cheryl Kagan has introduced bills on elections and voting for years, and is glad to see increased interest in the voting process — even though some of it was driven by Trump “raising doubts and disparaging the election process.”

“Maryland’s voting system works, but we can always improve,” said Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Kagan’s proposals range from adding more members to the five-person state elections board and requiring the board to be more transparent to allowing local elections boards to continue processing and scanning ballots ahead of Election Day, as they did in 2020.

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Kagan said she’s hoping to get bipartisan support for her measures. “I think we all want accurate voter rolls and we all want accurate, accessible elections,” she said.

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For that overarching goal, Simonaire, the Republican leader, said there’s bipartisan agreement.

He said Republican initiatives in the General Assembly are driven by the changing habits of voters, such as the preference to vote by mail, more than anything the former president claimed about the outcome of the 2020 election.

“Our goal, Democrats and Republicans, is to increase voter participation and we’ll continue to work towards that,” he said. “We want every registered voter to be able to vote and we want the safeguards.”

Michael Cogan, a Republican who chaired the state elections board through the roller-coaster 2020 election year, cautioned against making too many changes to the state’s election process.

“What 2020 showed us was how, in the end, robust the system is,” said Cogan, who recently resigned because he’s moving. “By no means was it an easy walk in the park. But, at the end of the day, the system was strong. It could operate under extremely adverse conditions.”

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