Maryland’s first vote-by-mail election is underway in the state’s third-largest city, and the pros and cons are on full display in what some lawmakers hope could be a prototype for a future statewide system.
“We welcome information gained by the City of Rockville in the conduct of this election that would benefit a future vote by mail process,” said Donna Duncan, assistant deputy administrator for election administration at the Maryland State Board of Elections.
The largest goal for Rockville city officials is to increase voter turnout, which has averaged 16 percent across the city’s last three elections – but the trade-off will be the cost to taxpayers.
Election officials budgeted $350,000 for the vote-by-mail initiative, which is more than five times higher than the cost of the city’s last election, in 2015. The increased price tag is largely driven by voter outreach and mailing costs, city staff said.
With less than a week until Election Day, turnout is hovering around 14 percent, according to figures provided by the city. Anyone, including the candidates themselves, can see who has successfully cast a ballot.
Under the new election model, the names on processed ballots are posted on the city’s election website. Another feature has the voter’s printed name and address on the outside of the return ballot envelope, which allows ballot collectors to identify the voter before their vote is cast.
Some residents view these policies as an invasion of privacy or relate it to security concerns, while others see them simply as confirmation that their ballot has been received.
“I was not aware my name was online,” said one voter, Robert Dalgarno, 28. “But that’s OK. I thought it was convenient to vote by mail.”
A former Montgomery County election judge, 58-year-old Tonya Powell, said, “I am concerned about the security of the mail-in ballot.”
But Powell had another concern: She says she has only received one piece of mail regarding the new vote-by-mail system – and that was her ballot.
On the other hand, public relations executive Robyn Sachs, 57, said she received multiple election mailers from the city, but as of Oct. 31 had not received her ballot.
“I have gotten a lot of mail from Rockville city saying the ballots are coming,” Sachs said. “I was told they were mailed between Oct. 3 and 10. I ended up going to city hall. I had to cancel a ballot and request a new ballot. It wasn’t convenient and no explanation was offered. It does not appear to be a very secure system.”
Another voter said she was concerned about block voting, though the 71-year-old asked not to be identified.
“I would like voters to think independently,” the woman said, adding she feared that groups of individuals would gather to receive instructions on whom to vote for.
On Oct. 20, with two weeks remaining before the election, a group of residents at Ingleside retirement community in King Farm told Rockville City Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton they still had not received ballots.
According to the Rockville city election law, ballots must be mailed or distributed between 30 and 25 days before the general election. For the Nov. 5 election, the date was Oct. 11.
The day after Newton informed elections officials of the apparent glitch, the elections office delivered 335 ballots to the senior living facility. By the next morning, Oct. 22, an Ingleside resident reported finding his ballot placed on a shelf outside the front door of his unit.
Rockville City Clerk Sara Taylor-Ferrell said certain residents at nursing homes are allowed an exception when it comes to where ballots are hand delivered to those without exact street addresses or mailing boxes.
However, only a small portion of residents who reside on one floor at the Ingleside community qualify for the exception, according to one tenant, Jacques Gelin, 87, a former Justice Department attorney. The majority of residents have mailboxes on the first floor of the building, Gelin said, so their ballots should have been delivered there.
Municipalities in Maryland have broad authority to conduct elections as they see fit, said Maryland Municipal League research specialist Jim Peck.
“Clearly there are issues such as fraud that would be affected by state criminal law, but in terms of the administration of elections municipalities have broad discretional authority,” Peck said.
In Rockville’s case, the mayor and council have no authority over the administration of elections, according to Newton. The city clerk, its staff and The Board of Supervisors of Elections maintain control.
The state election board also has no authority over municipal elections in the state, but Duncan said for local election boards under their jurisdiction, any penalties for violating the state’s nursing home absentee ballot procedures would be determined in court by a prosecutor.
As of Oct. 31, 6,157 ballots have been cast among the city’s approximate 44,000 registered voters.
Del. Julie Palakovich Carr, (D-Rockville), who helped pass the vote-by-mail legislation as a Rockville city councilwoman, said there has been a significant increase in voter participation this election by residents who did not vote in 2015 or 2013 Rockville elections.
“I think it does enable a lot more voters to vote easily and without the hassle of needing to get to the polls on certain dates, at certain times and to certain locations,” said Palakovich Carr.
The delegate said a study conducted by a campaign volunteer for City Councilman Mark Pierzchala, whom Palakovich Carr supports, indicates the percentage of new voters could be as high as 56 percent.
If accurate, the surge in new voter activity could be attributed to a historic showing of special interest endorsements and support from lawmakers outside of Rockville who are backing candidates in the race.
Other explanations could be an increase of roughly 3,600 newly registered voters since the 2015 election or voter concerns over ballot security. Several voters interviewed for this article indicated they would wait until Election Day to hand walk their ballots to City Hall.
Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].