Voting During A Pandemic: What Maryland Voters Need To Know About Upcoming Elections

By Dominique Maria Bonessi
April 3, 2020
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Maryland’s State Board of Elections is encouraging most people to mail in their ballots for the June 2nd Primary.

Maryland’s State Board of Elections sent recommendations to Gov. Larry Hogan Friday about how to conduct upcoming elections during the coronavirus pandemic.

The board approved plans for elections on April 28 — a general election for former Congressman Elijah Cummings’ seat — and for the June 2 primary. Both plans include a mix of online voter registration and vote by mail. State lawmakers, voting rights advocates and public health experts have begun weighing in on the recommendations that still need to be approved by Hogan.

“This is a good point to remind people that this is not business as usual,” Michael Cogan, chair of the board, said at the start of Thursday’s meeting. “We have a number of things we have to take into account with very little time to do it.”

In mid-March, when the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, Hogan announced via executive order that the state’s presidential primary election would be postponed from April 28 to June 2 and the state board of elections would devise a comprehensive plan to “minimize injury and damage” from the public health crisis while still instilling confidence in the electoral process.

What Are The Recommended Plans?

The board is recommending vote-by-mail with an option for in-person voting for individuals who need it for the June 2 primary. The local boards of elections will be sending ballots out via mail for all actively registered absentee voters. For those who want it, they can also have their ballots emailed to them, in which case they will have to print and mail them back.

On election day, each county will make one to four sites available for in-person voting and install a drop-box outside the facility for people who want to hand-deliver their ballots rather than mail them in.

“We have a relatively very small group of people that should have a need to go to these voting centers in person on election day,” Cogan said.

Patrick Hogan, vice chairman of the board, said he believes the number of people who will want to cast ballots in person is limited.

“I think a lot of people are going to be voting by mail. People don’t want to go out of their house,” Hogan said. “They don’t want to expose themselves.”

The location of the in-person voting sites and drop-boxes will be designated by the local boards of elections.

The state board is asking people who want to vote in April and June to register online as soon as possible so they can get their name and address added to the voter roll. Local boards of elections are currently closed under Hogan’s executive orders. All in-person voter registration, ballot requests and ballot returns will not be allowed.

If you don’t know whether you’re registered or want to confirm your address with the election board, you should try calling or emailing them as soon as possible.

Are There Any Federal Recommendations?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a comprehensive list of recommendations for state election boards, poll workers and voters. The biggest recommendation is that any in-person polling sites should not be located in or around health care or long-term care facilities.

Other recommendations include:

  • Use mail-in ballots when feasible
  • Drive-up voting
  • Vote during off-peak hours on Election Day
  • Practice social distancing

For poll workers, the state board has placed a request for personal protective equipment like gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to be available at in-person voting sites. But with the shortage of PPE gear at hospitals, the state department of health says they can’t guarantee PPE gear for workers. Poll workers are encouraged to wear their own PPE.

The state board is also looking to limit the number of poll workers per site to a maximum of 10 and reminding workers who are at a high-risk for contracting the virus or have an underlying health condition to consider staying home.

What Are State Leaders Saying About The Recommended Election Plans?

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones wrote a letter to Hogan saying they understood why the April 28th election had to be mail-in only. They also requested a combination of in-person and mail-in voting be allowed for the June 2nd primary election.

“We recognize the context of these decisions in the midst of this extraordinary public health event,” Jones and Ferguson wrote in the letter. “Concerns that have been raised in committees include significant research that shows minority voters are less likely to vote by mail, and that transient and low-income populations are less likely to participate or even receive ballots.”

Voting rights experts like Hannah Klain, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, says many states that have mail-in voting like Colorado took years to implement it.

“Vote by mail has a lot of complications and can’t be implemented overnight,” Klain said on a podcast last week with the American Constitution Society.

According to data from the Census Bureau, the number of people voting absentee hasn’t changed significantly over the past six years. During the 2018 midterm election, less than 30% of voters in Maryland voted absentee. And while there are fewer mail-in ballots in midterm elections than in presidential primaries, in 2018 the number of mail-in was similar to that of the 2016 presidential election.

Voting rights advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Common Cause, League of Women Voters and Maryland’s Public Interest Research Group wrote a letter to Hogan stating their concern that many people will not have the ability to vote in the April 28th election.

“We’re even more concerned that voters with disabilities, limited English, and other barriers will have no clear route for seeking assistance,” the letter said. “We should also work collaboratively to ensure inactive voters are contacted and provided with an opportunity to receive an absentee ballot as well as develop a clear process for resolving absentee ballot issues.”

The four organizations also said it’s critical that funding is in place to have an education awareness campaign around the changes to the 2020 primary election.

Montgomery County Sen. Cheryl Kagan also expressed concern about making the limited in-person voting sites accessible to people who rely on public transportation.

Other problems the board still needs to iron out include: How will people who are bedridden or don’t have access to the internet be able to get a ballot? And, with one to four voting sites per county, how will people who rely on public transportation access the voting sites?