Governor Larry Hogan is asking Maryland's to mainly use mail-in ballots for the upcoming June 2 election. A small percentage of precincts will be open.
Maryland’s June 2 primary will be conducted largely by mail, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday, although in-person voting centers will be offered on a limited basis.
Hogan already had rescheduled the election, originally slated for April, for June due to the new coronavirus outbreak, which, as of Friday, had killed at least 171 people in Maryland and sickened nearly 7,000 more. At the same time last month, Hogan ordered to state Board of Elections to come up with a plan to execute the election as the state remains under a stay-at-home order to contain the spread of the virus.
“Free and fair elections are the very foundation of American democracy, and our ultimate goal must be to do everything possible to ensure the voice of every Marylander is heard in a safe and secure manner,” Hogan said during a news conference in Annapolis.
The plan Hogan approved Friday calls for the state to mail ballots to the more than 4 million eligible registered voters in Maryland. State election officials have said previously that those ballots would ideally be mailed by the end of April.
The governor strongly encouraged voters to return their completed ballots by mail, but they also can drop them in boxes that will be offered in each of Maryland’s 24 counties. Voters who are unable to fill out the mail ballots because of a disability or who do not receive them by mail will be allowed to vote at in-person voting centers located across the state.
There will be at least one center per county, to be located at previously approved locations — typically chosen from among sites normally used for early voting.
Acknowledging that some people will be unable to vote by mail, the governor called for “significant social distancing practices” at in-person voting locations.
Maryland’s June 2 primary includes nominations for the state’s eight U.S. House seats. In Baltimore, citizens will nominate candidates for mayor, City Council president, council seats and city comptroller. The primary is also for U.S. president, although with the withdrawal Wednesday of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders from the Democratic race, former Vice President Joe Biden is the party’s presumptive nominee.
States across the nation are struggling to adjust calendars and voting to minimize risk to public health — with varying degrees of success. At least 15 states postponed their spring primaries, but some found they didn’t move them ahead far enough to get beyond the projected peak of the disease’s spread. For instance, Georgia on Thursday pushed back its primary for a second time.
Other states have plowed forward, most recently Wisconsin, which held an in-person primary Tuesday after a conservative majority on that state’s Supreme Court blocked an executive order by the Democratic governor to postpone the contest. Thousands of voters waited in long lines, and on Friday, Wisconsin health officials announced they were using tracing tools to track of residents potentially exposed to the coronavirus during the election.
In Maryland, the changes ordered by Hogan amount to a stark departure from the state’s typical voting process, which allows voters to vote by mail with absentee ballots, but is largely conducted at polling places. During the 2016 presidential election, Maryland mailed out only 225,653 absentee ballots. About 177,000 of those ballots were returned for counting.
Maryland health officials told election board members they could not guarantee that personal protective equipment will be available for election judges and other poll workers, although state elections officials requested such gear. Maryland, like the rest of the nation, is experiencing a shortage in such equipment.
In sending the board’s proposed plan to the governor April 3, the chairman wrote in a cover letter that it would continue to work on the issue of protective equipment for staff and volunteers, as well as “how to address the possibility of fraud” in a largely mail-in election.
Following the governor’s acceptance of the plan, it will now be up to state and local officials to finalize the location of in-person voting centers and hire people to staff them. State election officials estimated previously that about a dozen people would be needed per location, although U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for no more than 10 people in proximity to one another during the outbreak.
Hogan’s order also addressed a state Board of Elections plan for mail-in voting only, with no voting centers, for the April 28 special general election in the 7th Congressional District. Voters in the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County, will choose a replacement for the late Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore.
Hogan said the April election can be entirely by mail as long as the state elections board submits a written document stating it is not possible to offer voting centers “in a manner than mitigates and reduces a substantial threat to public safety or health." The board also must demonstrate the election will comply with the state and U.S. Constitution even if no centers are offered.
Advocates for people with disabilities and voting rights groups have argued in the past that not offering in-person voting infringes on federal laws protecting the right to vote.
Ballots for the 7th District race have been mailed to voters. Voters who did not receive a ballot can contact their local election board by phone or online; ballots can be mailed out through April 22, while April 24 is the deadline to request a ballot be sent electronically.
Maryland’s move to voting by mail doesn’t just upend voting day procedures. It also alters the vote-counting process, likely lengthening the amount of time it will take to get results from the primary.
Under the governor’s order Friday, elections officials can begin counting ballots they’ve received by mail for the June 2 primary 12 days in advance of the Primary Day. The earliest results would be made public, however, is June 2 at 8 p.m. — the time polls usually close.