Early voting participation for the 2022 primary was the lowest in 10 years. Should Maryland roll it back? Experts say no.

October 27, 2022

Baltimore Sun

Amy Thomson was always an Election Day voter — until the pandemic hit.

The Frederick County mom works nights in the shipping industry and had to make time for her trip to her polling place around the start of the busy holiday season. The sprawling Frederick County only has four early voting centers, and none ever seemed particularly convenient, she said.

Then in 2020, a mail-in ballot was automatically mailed to Thomson and all other eligible active voters across the state.

“So much more convenient,” Thomson said this week as yet another election approaches in which she plans to vote by mail. “The election board sent me a letter to ask if I wanted to vote by mail for every election. I responded yes.”

Thomson is part of a wave of Maryland voters who have changed their voting behavior as a result of the pandemic. As the Nov. 8 election approaches and early voting begins this week, elections officials and observers across the state are watching with interest to see what patterns might emerge to figure out how to best hold elections in the future.

The surge in mail-in voting, initially brought about by health concerns, is the most notable post-pandemic change. A report issued by the Maryland State Board of Elections this month showed about a third of participating voters cast their ballots by mail during the July primary.

That figure represents a drop from November 2020, when about half of all voters cast mail-in ballots. But it also suggests that mail-in voting will remain a big part of Maryland’s voting process going forward.

“I think as people get more and more confident in the mail-in ballot system, that gives them maximum flexibility,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “It’s about access, access, access.”

Also of note in the state board of election’s report: a significant decrease in the number of voters taking advantage of early voting. Only 17% of voters in the July primary cast ballots during the weeklong early voting window, the lowest percentage since the 2012 primary election, two years after early voting was first implemented.

The state’s report suggests the increase was caused by voters shifting to voting by mail.

Emily Scarr, director of the Maryland PIRG Foundation, said that trend makes sense to her, particularly as someone who has made a similar transition. Scarr said she liked the convenience of early voting for many years because it was most compatible with her work schedule. In the past couple of years, she has switched to voting by mail.

“Once voters tried voting by mail, they liked voting by mail,” she said.

Although the total number of voters who participated in early voting dipped, trends for the slowest and busiest days remained similar to previous years, the election board’s report said. The final two days of early voting in the primary were the busiest, attracting almost 74,000 voters. The two weekend days were the slowest and saw 21,339 voters combined.

It could be tempting after seeing a reduction in early voting to scale back, but early voting provides a lot of benefit relative to its cost, Scarr said.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” she said of reducing the early voting period. “Early voting provides added flexibility for voters to be able to vote around their work schedules and child care. It has the benefit of being efficient because there are fewer precincts around each county.”

Maryland provided about 100 early voting centers across the state for the July primary, and a similar number will be offered this fall. Voters can use any center in their county. In contrast, the state operates about 1,500 polling places on Election Day, each staffed by judges and poll workers. Voters must use their assigned polling places on that day.

That Election Day approach is really what the state should consider changing, said state Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat who has sponsored numerous pieces of election-related legislation, including a bill vetoed last year that would allow mail-in ballots to be counted early.

“It’s expensive to have that many machines and scanners — and then the staff costs and the challenge of recruiting election judges and poll workers,” Kagan said. “It’s an enormous hurdle that our election boards struggle with for months before an election.”

Another challenge that election officials need to confront in the next few years is the use of email delivery ballots, Kagan said. Voters have been attracted to the option, thinking they will be able to cast their votes electronically, but in reality, such ballots require a voter to print off a copy of their ballot before filling it out and returning it.

The ballots are time-consuming for elections officials. When they are canvassed, officials must work in bipartisan pairs to manually duplicate the ballots to put their vote totals on a new ballot countable using the state’s ballot scanners.

Of the roughly 500,000 voters who requested mail-in ballots for the primary, only 12% asked for email delivery. Of those, however, 43% were returned, according to new data from the state board of elections. That’s significantly lower than the 65% return rate for all mail-in ballots during the primary.

Kagan argued that’s a reflection of how difficult the ballots are for voters to use.

“I don’t think we should eliminate them. We want you to be able to cast your ballot,” she said. “There are sometimes people with emergencies or disabilities or unexpected travel who need this option, but for the most part, people at home should not choose this form of voting.”

Hartley, Kagan and Scarr suggested there also are improvements that could be made in communication with voters, particularly if the use of mail-in ballots persists in high numbers. Although the state has a system to alert voters that their mail-in ballots have been received and also counted, it is dependent upon local election boards to scan in ballots promptly as they are received.

Kagan said she’s considering legislation next year that will require local election boards to scan in ballots within two days of their arrival.

Improving overall communication with voters who have cast mail-in ballots will continue to build voter trust and hopefully increase participation, Hartley said.

“It’s new to us, newish, and people are probably still a little worried it’s not going to get there,” Hartley said. “It’s really important going into the politics we’re seeing about ballot-counting that voters are confident that when they send that ballot in by mail, it’s going to get there and be counted.”