GOP Election Board Members Would Require Voters to Apply If They Want Mail-in Ballots

Election
The Maryland State Board of Elections office in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The Maryland State Board of Elections won’t recommend an entirely in-person general election in November, but is divided along party lines on whether to conduct the election entirely by mail or in a hybrid model.

Elections board Chairman Michael R. Cogan, along with his fellow Republican board members Kelley A. Howells and William G. Voelp, support of a mix of in-person and mail-in ballots on election day.

The option Cogan, Howells and Voelp support provides that applications for mail-in ballots be sent to registered voters, who will be “strongly encouraged” to use them.

Elections board Vice Chairman Patrick J. Hogan and member Malcolm L. Funn, both Democrats, support an entirely mail-in election. Following Maryland’s largely vote-by-mail June 2 primary, election officials mulled three options for the general election:

  • The first option would look like a traditional election, with in-person voting for early voting and on election day. But this option also would allow voters to request a mail-in ballot. No one supported this option.

  • The second, which Cogan, Howells and Voelp supported, would have extensive in-person voting leading up to and on election day. Voters also would be sent applications for mail-in ballots, and would be encouraged to use them.

  • The third, which Hogan and Funn supported, would look similar to Maryland’s June 2 primary, being held largely by mail with some in-person voting centers.

Board members’ positions will be reported to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., a Republican. But the governor ultimately will decide how the election is to be conducted.

Cogan was concerned that mailing ballots to every registered voter might hurt voters’ confidence in the election process, especially if ballots are sent to old addresses or to dead voters.

“I’m not sure the voters have confidence in an election if they’re seeing ballots crop up for people that aren’t there,” Cogan said.

Voelp raised concerns about potential voter-fraud in a primarily mail-in election, although research shows very low levels of fraud in states which already conduct mail-in elections. Voelp and Howells said the board shouldn’t risk even low levels of fraud.

“I do not want to flood the state with unmarked ballots,” Howells said. “I think that’s asking for trouble. We did it because we had to in June. “

But Hogan and Funn said a mail-in election is the only way to make sure every voter can participate in the November election.

“There is no optimal option,” Funn said. “All of them have issues and problems. My overall concern is to make sure that every citizen has a right to vote.”

Joanne Antoine, the executive director for Common Cause Maryland, said three board members opting to not mail ballots to all voters was “disappointing”.

Antoine said a mail-in election would be in the best interest of voters, given the global coronavirus pandemic.  She said vote-by-mail “continues to be a secure process that is used widely in other states”.

A mix of mail-in and in-person voting is similar to the “hybrid mail-in preferred” election format that two prominent Maryland Senate leaders recommended to the State Board of Elections in a letter last week.

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said last week that election officials should expand in-person voting centers and early in-person voting, provide more ballot drop-off boxes and be more transparent during the November elections.

“Specifically, a ‘hybrid mail-in preferred election’ would require the Board to affirmatively mail General Election ballots to all registered voters in Maryland, and would provide expanded opportunities for in-person voting than those provided in [the] June 2 Primary for those voters who either do not receive ballots in the mail or who strongly prefer to vote in-person,” Pinsky and Ferguson wrote.

Other top lawmakers have called on election officials to conduct an in-person election, with voters using absentee ballots if they don’t want to vote in person. Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford) and Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) told election officials in a separate letter that errors in the recent primary and the potential for voter fraud mean the November election should be largely conducted in-person.

The pair wrote that voters who aren’t comfortable casting their ballots in person still would be able to request an absentee ballot. And they said sending ballots to every registered voter “will litter the state with unclaimed ballots and create serious opportunities for voter fraud”.

Advocates pushed back on Jennings’ and Hershey’s claims, and urged Gov. Hogan to opt for a mail-in election in November.  The letter was cosigned by Maryland PIRG, Common Cause Maryland, Reverend Kobi Little of the Baltimore NAACP, the ACLU of Maryland, the League of Women Voters of Maryland and Disability Rights Maryland.

“Because of the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, we cannot assume it will be safe to run our November elections with predominantly in person voting,” the advocates wrote to the governor. “We do know that delaying the decision will jeopardize SBE’s ability to run a safe, secure and efficient election process, and could lead to even more problems than those experienced in the Primary Election.”

Local election officials also have urged the State Board of Elections to conduct the fall election in a hybrid model. Local boards of elections don’t have time to prepare for a traditional election at this point, David Garreis, the president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, told board members in a letter this week.

“The local election directors are in agreement that we are past the point of having sufficient time to prepare for a ‘normal’ in-person election,” Garreis wrote. “MAEO is therefore strongly in favor of a ‘hybrid vote-by-mail election with extended in-person vote centers.’”

State Board of Election members hope to avoid repeating the errors in Maryland’s June 2 primary. Although voter turnout was high, election officials have come under fire for mishaps in that election. Some voters, particularly those in Baltimore city, received late or incorrect ballots, and those who decided to vote in person faced long lines on election day.

A printing vendor was to blame for at least some of those errors, Linda Lamone, the state’s top elections administrator, told lawmakers in a June 16 meeting. Lamone also accepted responsibility for other errors, like pulling results from the elections website without a quick explanation.

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