After 2 turbulent elections, Maryland officials seek to restore stability, ensure access to voting

March 17, 2023

Baltimore Sun

Maryland elections in the past few years — amid a pandemic and a once-in-a-decade redistricting — have faced near-constant turbulence.

Drastic changes to voters’ preferred methods of voting. Lawsuits alleging gerrymandering on racial and partisan grounds. Delays, in some cases lasting weeks, in determining which candidates won.

State lawmakers are considering dozens of proposals this year to bring some stability back into the process and to make other improvements for both voters and election administrators.

Among them are bills that would give election workers more time to process ballots that voters mail in, create more ways for voters to fix mistakes on a ballot they sent in, pay election workers more, and make it easier for voters to sue if they feel the government is creating barriers for them to vote.

Not all of the nearly 100 election-related bills introduced will pass the finish line before lawmakers end their annual 90-day session April 10.

And Republican-led bills — like those that would scale back the state’s eight-day early voting period or require voters present photo identification at the polls — have an even smaller shot in a General Assembly controlled by Democrats.

Here are the changes that could be on the way for next year’s high-stakes presidential, congressional and Baltimore City elections, as well as some of this year’s municipal races.

Mail-in ballot counting and curing

The most likely changes are aimed at fixing issues with mail-in ballots that caused headaches for most of last year’s gubernatorial primary and general elections.

Mail-in ballots skyrocketed in popularity after the coronavirus pandemic that began three years ago reduced demand and opportunities for traditional in-person voting. Although more voters returned to the polls in 2022, about 346,000 voters in the primary and nearly 542,000 voters in the general election voted by mail. That represented about a third of the voters in the primary and 27% in the general election — a quick escalation from the 5% of voters who cast a ballot by mail in the previous general gubernatorial election in 2018.

In their 2022 session, Maryland lawmakers passed legislation to give county election workers more time to process — or “canvass” — those ballots. Maryland was the only state that didn’t allow workers to begin opening, verifying and tabulating ballots until after Election Day.

But as governor, Republican Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, leaving the distinction in place. Hogan said he supported the expanded canvassing period, but objected to what he called a lack of additional security safeguards, such as signature verification.

That led to days and even weeks of uncertainty in some races after the July primary, which was already delayed by legal challenges to redraw election districts. Counties scrambled to canvass and count the influx of ballots.

When the Maryland State Board of Elections petitioned a court to allow counties to canvass earlier for the November election, Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the emergency measure.

“When you’re talking about thousands and thousands [of ballots], an increasing percentage of all the votes that are cast, coming in through the mail, we really need to start processing them so we can have election results in a timely manner,” said state Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill last year.

The Senate on Tuesday passed Kagan’s latest version, Senate Bill 379. It would require county election boards to begin canvassing mail-in ballots eight days before the first day of early voting, which typically begins more than a week before Election Day. That would allow workers to open ballot envelopes, verify voters signed them correctly and sort them. Actually counting votes could not happen until Election Day.

Election workers would also need to notify a voter within three business days and give them a chance to fix, or “cure,” their ballot if, for example, they forgot to sign it. And for the first time in most areas of Maryland, such a voter could use their phone to text a picture of their signature, in addition to other options such as going to the elections office or using mail or email.

“There will be a fair amount of voters that will enjoy that option,” Baltimore County Elections Director Ruie Lavoie said of the possibility of text-to-cure.

With nearly 79,500 ballots returned by mail in November, Baltimore County was second only to Montgomery County in the volume of those types of ballots. Lavoie said she had a designated staffer who checked ballots as they came in and called voters within 24 hours if there was a problem. If the voter didn’t respond, the staffer would follow up with an email and then with regular mail.

“We definitely go above and beyond to try to assist voters to make sure their voice is heard,” Lavoie said.

Still, she said Baltimore County likely wouldn’t need the full eight days before early voting to begin the canvassing process for mail-in ballots. Like many counties last year, Baltimore County did not begin canvassing until just before Election Day and still finished within the required period.

Kagan said the bill would allow counties to ask for a waiver from the state to delay the start of canvassing — especially smaller ones that get fewer mail ballots and don’t need to spend resources to canvass early.

A nearly identical bill (House Bill 535) from Howard County Democrat Jessica Feldmark passed the House this month.

Maryland Voting Rights Act

Another major election change on the table this year is, according to its sponsor, “an idea whose time is long past due.”

The Maryland Voting Rights Act (House Bill 1104/Senate Bill 878) is an attempt to fill in gaps left after the U.S. Supreme Court scaled back certain provisions of the Civil Rights-era federal Voting Rights Act in the last decade.

A lack of enforcement of the federal law allowed states to create what some see as additional barriers to voting — like requiring voters to show photo IDs at polling places or limiting access to mail-in ballots.

While Maryland has not followed those states, bill sponsor Del. Stephanie Smith told a House committee last month that the state should be “vigilant to ensure those cherished parts of our democracy continue into the future.”

“We have made substantial progress in recent years in making our democracy more accessible. Yet we need stronger protections for voters of color in our state now,” said Smith, a Baltimore Democrat.

The lengthy bill would, in part, specifically prohibit voter intimidation — such as threats, force or interference with an individual’s access to vote.

It would also require certain voting jurisdictions to get clearance in advance from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office or the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court to establish new local voting policies. Those jurisdictions are not named in the bill, but it describes qualifications that would include areas with larger populations of minority voters and where local governments have violated federal voting rights laws.

Valencia Richardson, a lawyer who focuses on voting rights for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, said the bill would address past problems specific to Maryland, “in particular thinking about the ways in which different types of racial discrimination impose a barrier on the right to vote.”

For example, she said, if the law had been enacted earlier, Baltimore County may have been required to get prior approval to enact redrawn county council boundaries. Instead, the county’s first map was struck down by a federal judge. That map contained one majority-Black district out of seven in a county where Black residents make up a third of the population. The judge accepted the next attempt, noting it created a second district where Black voters would have the opportunity to “elect a representative of their choice.”

Groups such as the NAACP Baltimore County branch ultimately didn’t support either the first or second map.

Richardson said even if the county wouldn’t have been covered by the pre-clearance provision of Smith’s proposed Maryland Voting Rights Act, it would have given voters more flexibility to bring a lawsuit in state court, instead of at the federal level.

Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Baltimore County Democrat sponsoring the Senate version of Smith’s bill, referred Wednesday to his county’s case last year during his committee testimony. The council today has no women and only one nonwhite member, he said.

“Unfortunately, these situations are not a thing of the past,” Sydnor said.

Voter IDs, election judge pay and … George Santos?

A slew of other bills and amendments sponsored by Republicans this year would require various kinds of ID from voters or slash eight days of early voting to as few as four, but those are unlikely to get by the Democratic supermajorities or Democratic Gov. Wes Moore.

Democratic-sponsored voting bills that could also make their way to the governor’s desk include ones that would require election judges to be paid at least $250 a day (House Bill 1200/Senate Bill 925), and others that would require more public disclosure of changes to polling place locations (House Bill 410).

Additional election-related legislation deals more directly with candidates, like bills that would ban candidates from collecting donations via cryptocurrency (Senate Bill 269/House Bill 192) and others that would require prospective candidates to register “draft” or “exploratory” committees as they raise and spend donors’ money (Senate Bill 111/House Bill 441).

One bill inspired by the saga of U.S. Rep. George Santos — the New York freshman congressman who exaggerated and lied about many elements of his past — would require candidates to sign a “truthfulness” oath at the beginning of their campaigns.

Del. Susan McComas, a Harford County Republican, acknowledged in the hearing for her House Bill 1120 that the idea was deemed unconstitutional by the attorney general’s office and thus likely “DOA.” But she said a constituent brought the idea to her and she agreed with it because of the increase of “over the top” claims like those made by Santos.