Ferguson, Jones Press Elections Board on Mail-In Ballot Issues

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) at a news conference with colleagues earlier this year. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Maryland’s top lawmakers are asking the State Board of Elections to add additional voting centers in Baltimore City and Montgomery County for the June 2 presidential primary due to late delivery of mail-in ballots to voters in those two large jurisdictions.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) also want the state board to increase the number of drop-off locations for ballots in the jurisdictions, to reduce the risk of local boards disqualifying ballots that are returned late.

Ferguson and Jones are asking the state to allow up to two additional in-person voting sites in Montgomery County and the city of Baltimore.

A ballot drop-off box outside the Edward Bohrer Recreation Center in Gaithersburg.

In-person voting for the primary, which was delayed from April 28, has been strongly discouraged by the state board as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the state, which is responsible for sending vote-by-mail ballots to all eligible active voters, said over the weekend that some ballots could arrive to voters in Baltimore as late as this coming Saturday. Voters in Montgomery County began receiving ballots late last week.

The two jurisdictions were the last large batches of mailed ballots to be processed for the election, officials said.

“Due to the late delivery of mail-in ballots to Baltimore City and Montgomery County, it is much more likely that voters in these jurisdictions will encounter substantial hurdles to cast a ballot by Election Day,” Jones and Ferguson wrote in a letter to the board on Tuesday.

Adding in-person voting opportunities and dropoff sites can ensure that voters have the ability to vote on time and reduce any potential crowding, the lawmakers wrote.

There are 42 in-person voting sites scheduled to open throughout the state on election day, including four each in Montgomery County and the city of Baltimore, as well as 66 ballot drop-off boxes throughout the state.

Adding to the lawmakers’ concerns is the number of ballots that were undeliverable during the 7th congressional district special election that was held largely by mail at the end of April. Almost 9% of the mail-in ballots ― more than 20,300 ― addressed to voters in the city of Baltimore were returned as undeliverable; more than 8,000 additional ballots were returned as undeliverable in Howard and Baltimore counties. And voters who’d proactively requested an absentee ballot before the shift to a mail-in election were overlooked in the mailing process, receiving their ballots very late, including on, or possibly after, the election day.

Jones and Ferguson ask in the letter for an accounting of how many total ballots went undelivered for the special election and ask for a detailed response on how the state board plans to address the issue for the June 2 election.

“Significant research 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 ― as we see here,” Jones and Ferguson wrote. “As we transition to a primarily mail-in ballot election, there must be a comprehensive plan in place to direct resources to these communities and target voters individually to communicate alternatives to still vote if unable to cast a ballot by mail.”

The legislative leaders also asked for details on a $1-million-plus advertising campaign to explain the vote-by-mail process as well as the state’s spending of federal stimulus funding on elections efforts.

The letter stresses that Jones and Ferguson want to work collaboratively with the state board to address the issues before election day.

“We understand these unprecedented circumstances and the challenges facing the election system amid a global pandemic,” Jones and Ferguson wrote. “We do have serious concerns, though, with the impacts that may result from administrative processes leading up to Election Day if remedial efforts to enhance voter confidence are not undertaken as soon as possible.”

Several leading figures have addressed letters to the board since Sunday’s acknowledgement of ballot delays in the city.

The Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee on Monday urged the state board to establish six additional voting sites in Baltimore, as well as additional dropboxes and additional advertising.

Baltimore Votes, Black Girls Vote, and the Open Society Institute are calling on the state board to increase access and accept ballots in the city that are postmarked through June 8.

As of Tuesday, the state board reported that 264,486 ballots of the nearly 3.5 million ballots mailed had been returned by voters throughout the state. That figure included 24 returned ballots in the city of Baltimore and 701 in Montgomery County.

Late Tuesday, Maryland Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Charlson said the state board would provide an additional 10 dropoff boxes for use in the city of Baltimore.

She said the state was focused on working with the postal service to get ballots to voters by the end of the week.

Charlson said the state is working with the postal service to deliver ballots as quickly as possible.

“Right now, we’re focusing on working with the postal service to get the ballots to Maryland and get them to voters,” Charlson said.

She said state officials would review ballot delivery issues after the election.

“We’re disappointed that our vendor didn’t deliver according to the schedule,” Charlson said. “As we do after every election, we will do a full accounting of what went well and what didn’t.”

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include comment from the Maryland State Board of Elections. 

Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.