Marylanders who live in the 7th congressional district will fill the seat vacated by the death of U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) as scheduled on April 28, though voters will cast ballots by mail, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) declared on Tuesday.
But the primary races that were to be decided that day will be delayed until June 2.
The contests that are being delayed include Maryland’s presidential and congressional primaries as well as primaries that were to be held for various local offices, including Baltimore’s mayoral, City Council president, comptroller and City Council races, as well as for Cecil County executive.
“I have two main priorities — keeping Marylanders safe and protecting their constitutional right to vote,” Hogan told reporters at a briefing outside the governor’s mansion. “It would endanger public health to allow thousands of people to assemble in places like schools and senior centers.”
The State Board of Elections released a statement shortly after the governor spoke, expressing support for the move.
Hogan’s split-decision on the state’s upcoming balloting represented a compromise borne of circumstance. Elections officials told the administration they lacked the ability to do a statewide election next month because of the number of polling locations that are closed.
The race for the Cummings seat, by contrast, which involves three jurisdictions, is doable, Hogan determined.
“On a small basis, in one congressional district, for that one vacancy, we’re going to ask the Board of Elections to conduct that election on time. … This is a trial basis. Never been done before,” he said.
The people of the 7th District, which includes a large chunk of Baltimore City as well as portions of Baltimore and Howard counties, have been without a representative in the U.S. House since Cummings died on Oct. 17.
The race to succeed him pits former congressman Kweisi Mfume (D) against conservative commentator Kimberly Klacik (R). The winner will serve out the remainder of Cummings’ term, which runs until January. Mfume, who served in Congress from 1987 to 1996, is heavily favored.
Hogan said it is “imperative that that the people of the 7th congressional district have a voice in the House of Representatives and that Maryland has a full delegation representing our state in Congress. … While there are many valid reasons for unease and uncertainty right now, ensuring that the voices of Maryland citizens are heard shouldn’t be one of them.”
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said Hogan’s decision “makes absolute sense.”
“You have people right now who do not have a representative and they do not have a representative in the midst of a crisis,” he said. “So let that election go forward and fill that vacant seat.”
In its statement, members of the State Board of Elections said they “fully support” Hogan’s decision:
“Our highest priority is to deliver a safe election environment for voters and election workers while also ensuring the fundamental right to vote. The actions announced today are critical to fulfilling that goal. Effective immediately, [the State Board of Elections] and Maryland’s local boards of elections are implementing the requirements set forth by Governor Hogan for the primary election and special general election in the 7th Congressional District.”
Eberly acknowledged concerns among some that delaying elections represents “a slippery slope.”
“Primaries are the parties deciding how to pick nominees,” he said. “That is a fundamentally different thing than an actual election. So I don’t know that people need to be too concerned about the fact that we’re postponing primaries.”
Elections officials noted that they rely on “thousands of election workers” every election cycle.
“Their health and wellness is critical,” the Board of Elections statement said. “We strongly encourage all Marylanders, especially those over the age of 60, to follow guidelines from the State of Maryland and the Centers for Disease Control that are designed to reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19. Following public health guidelines will position Maryland’s election workforce to deliver the safest and most secure primary election possible.”
Voters who wish to cast their ballot by mail in the primary election can submit a request online by visiting https://www.elections.maryland.gov and clicking the “Request a Ballot” box or obtaining a request form from elections.maryland.gov/voting/absentee.html.