Legislative Leaders, Advocates Press for In-Person Voting at Primary Election

Maryland’s standard voting ballot, left, and the ballot for persons with disabilities. Institute on Disability and Public Policy photo

Maryland’s top legislators are calling on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to ensure at least some in-person voting opportunities for the presidential primary election in June.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) sent a letter to Hogan on Tuesday, ahead of a meeting on Thursday in which the State Board of Elections is expected to finalize recommendations for the delayed presidential primary.

Last week, the board directed elections officials to draft a plan for the June 2 primary that would include no opportunities for in-person voting, which the board felt was necessary to protect voters and poll workers from the spread of COVID-19. By Tuesday, the novel coronavirus had infected at least 1,660 Marylanders.

The board is expected to vote on a final plan Thursday and deliver it to Hogan on Friday.

“The state must explore potential options for in-person voting opportunities for a limited number of our citizens to ensure that we are demonstrating that democracy can still flourish in the midst of a public health emergency,” Jones and Ferguson wrote in the letter to Hogan.

Read the full letter here.

The lawmakers, as well as advocacy groups, argued that moving forward with no in-person voting opportunities could disenfranchise some of Maryland’s most vulnerable voters, including people with disabilities or limited access to postal services.

Common Cause Maryland, the League of Women Voters of Maryland, Maryland PIRG and ACLU of Maryland joined in a letter earlier in March urging the state board to establish a limited number of vote centers for the primary election, which would allow eligible voters to take advantage of same-day registration and help those in need of assistance or who experienced problems receiving an absentee ballot.

Ashley Oleson said the League of Women Voters of Maryland remained “very concerned about the inevitable disenfranchisement of voters by opting for no in-person voting sites.”

While the organizations were generally understanding of the board’s predicament, they expressed hope that a plan for limited in-person voting for the June election still could be achieved in a safe way.

“If we can keep our liquor stores open, we should be able to keep our democracy open as well,” said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG.

Scarr said one group of voters who could be disenfranchised by an all-mail election would be college students, many of whom were forced to relocate after campus closures.

All of the organizations said the state will need to invest a tremendous amount in publicity and outreach to ensure as many voters as possible understand how the election will be conducted.

Jones and Ferguson wrote that vote-by-mail states took years to transition to the election method and reiterated concerns that have caused Maryland General Assembly Committees to reject statewide vote-by-mail legislation in the past.

“Concerns that have been raised in committees include the 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,” the leaders wrote.

They also noted that Colorado, a vote-by-mail state, includes Election Day registration and voting options.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the governor will review the letter, along with the Board of Elections proposal, when it’s received.

“The governor is committed to conducting the primary election in a way that protects public health and preserves the integrity of the democratic process,” Ricci said in a statement.

Ferguson and Jones said they were prepared to help the administration with any final policies for the election. They also noted that the policies adopted for the primary could very well influence the November 2020 presidential general election if a state of emergency continues or if there is a second phase of coronavirus spread.

“We expect a vote-by-mail election on short notice will mean an electorate of older and less racially and economically diverse voters,” Jones and Ferguson wrote. “The impact of the public health emergency on our state will inevitably create undue burdens; however, voting is a fundamental right. Together, we must do everything possible to ensure the voting electorate is as broad as possible.”

They included a list of additional recommendations to the governor:

  • Mailing inactive voters about how to vote and requesting voters to update their mailing and voter status;
  • Running a national change of address search to compare the state’s active and inactive voter rolls and contacting voters with apparent address changes;
  • Allowing ballots to be dropped off on election day until midnight at secure, handicapped-accessible locations across the state;
  • Initiating a robust publicity campaign announcing the changes and requesting voters update their information;
  • Conducting more advertising to encourage voters to fill out and return their ballots;
  • Communicating deadlines to voters and potential voters by email, text and phone calls;
  • Allowing disabled voters, on Election Day, to vote in-person, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  • Allowing delivery of online absentee ballot applications up to the day of the election;
  • Extending voter registration deadlines to just one week prior to the election; and,
  • Requiring the State Board of Elections to accommodate individuals moving into the state to register to vote since the Motor Vehicle Administration is closed.

“While the Board makes a recommendation, the choice is in your hands, Governor Hogan, and we hope that whatever option you choose effectively balances the public health risks with maximized voter access and participation,” Jones and Ferguson wrote.

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