December 27, 2022
Big changes have come to Maryland elections since the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020. More than 1 in 4 voters participated using mail-in ballots in the most recent election, casting them via ballot drop boxes or sending them back via the mail.
With that cultural shift has come the need for more adjustments to the mail-in ballot process. This fall, state election leaders got a court order allowing them to begin counting those ballots early to handle the massive influx that came with more widespread usage.
In the next election, voters will find more changes have been made to further expand their options. Ballot curing, the process by which voters who forget to sign the oath on their mail-in ballot can rectify the situation and ensure their vote is counted, is expected to be offered via text message for the 2024 election.
Most voters who cast mail-in ballots will never need to take advantage of the curing process. As long as they remember to sign the oath before sending their mail-in ballot back or placing it in a drop box, the vote will be counted — assuming it is received on time. The vast majority of mail-in ballots that were not counted in 2022 were disqualified because they were late.
But for a small number of voters — roughly 600 of the more than 340,000 who voted by mail in the July primary election — the curing process was necessary. State election data shows 250 people cured their ballots and their votes were counted in July. About 0.1% were disqualified due to a lack of signature.
Currently, voters are sent a letter notifying them that they forgot to sign the oath, said Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections. A copy of the oath is included, and it can be mailed back, dropped off at their local election board’s office, or scanned and returned via email.
This year, the State Board of Elections piloted a program that would also allow that process to happen via text message. Voters who forgot to sign the oath were mailed a letter giving them various options to cure. Among them was a text message program known as Text2Cure that gave the voter a unique pin number. They could click a link, sign electronically and submit their oath via their phone.
The pilot program was offered only in Montgomery County, which has the highest usage of mail-in ballots of any of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, Charlson said. Of the 188 ballots that required curing, 78 voters were given the option of signing their oath via text message. Of those, 17 voters took advantage of the option.
The pilot program was offered through the state’s current mail vendor, but Maryland will go through a procurement process next year to choose a vendor to offer a similar program statewide, Charlson said.
State Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Democrat from Montgomery County, is expected to propose a bill in the upcoming General Assembly session that would require such a curing process. She sponsored legislation in 2022 that would have required text message curing. It became part of a broader bill vetoed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Kagan said Maryland has been progressive compared with other states in making voting as easy as possible. Voters have the option of voting early, registering to vote at the polls, and they don’t need to provide an excuse to vote by mail. But work remains to make the process even easier, she said.
“We do transactions like this all the time,” Kagan said of curing via text message. “We need it to be secure, we need to be accurate, but we don’t need to stay in the 20th century when it comes to making sure people can vote.”
Concerns about election security ultimately tanked Kagan’s last attempt to implement curing via text. Hogan vetoed the bill, which also included a provision allowing the state to begin counting mail-in ballots early. The outgoing Republican governor didn’t take issue with either provision, but cited a lack of additional security measures in the bill, such as signature verification, as justification for his veto.
“While this legislation allows a voter to provide a missing signature by one of several ways — including in person, mail, email and text — it remains silent on basic security measures such as signature verification — with Maryland being one of only nine states that does not conduct signature verification — and does nothing to address ballot collecting,” Hogan wrote.
Hogan will leave office early next year. He’ll be replaced by Democratic Gov.-elect Wes Moore.
Kagan said she feels confident the legislation will be successful under a new administration, particularly in the wake of the July 2022 primary, when vote counting was not permitted to begin before the election and the canvassing process dragged on for a month in some jurisdictions.
The language about curing ballots via text message will remain the same in the bill Kagan plans to file in the first days of the 2023 session, she said. She said text message curing is similar to the email process already available, where voters are taking a picture of their signature or scanning it to be returned.
“It’s neither scary nor new,” Kagan said of the technology.
Current state law allows the State Board of Elections to do text message curing, Charlson said. While the state must go through the procurement process to choose a vendor to offer the program, the technology used in the pilot has been used in “many, many states,” she said.
“Blue states and red states,” Charlson said. “It’s recognized as a secure way to provide a signature and satisfy that signature requirement.”
Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, a group that advocates for election accessibility, said she supports statewide expansion of curing via text.
“We don’t want people’s votes to be not counted because of paperwork,” she said. “This is not an error on a ballot. It’s about confirming who the vote is coming from. Using modern technology to confirm that a voter sent a ballot makes sense.”