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COVID-19 in Maryland Government & Politics

Leaders Fret About Lack of Polling Places, Press Hogan to Change His Mind on Voting

Baltimore City voters standing in line at Edmondson High School to vote in the 2020 primary election. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

As Baltimore City election officials look for in-person polling places for the November election, many of the city’s regular centers have already closed their doors.

Some churches and senior centers where voters have previously cast their ballots are already indicating they won’t be available as polling centers in November, Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., the city’s elections director, told members of Baltimore City Council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee during a virtual Wednesday evening meeting.

Jones said the Baltimore City Board of Elections will likely struggle to find poll workers after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) ordered a largely in-person November election.

“We would have to find close to 3,000 election judges to staff those locations,” Jones said. “A lot of our judges are senior citizens, a lot of them won’t be able to come out.”

It’s a problem that election officials are facing across the state, Linda H. Lamone, Maryland’s top elections administrator, told City Council members. She said the State Board of Elections is scrambling to find alternative polling centers like athletic facilities.

“It’s going to be a very difficult situation to manage,” Lamone said. “We have asked all the local boards to survey all of their local polling places.”

Wednesday night’s discussion took place as prominent local Democratic officials from Maryland’s largest jurisdictions are urging Hogan to conduct the state’s November elections by mail, calling his decision to hold a more traditional election a “herculean task.”

One of their chief concerns is the potential paucity of polling places across the state.

Leaders from seven of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions demanded Hogan adopt a mail-in election format for the upcoming general election in a Tuesday letter. In doing so, they joined a chorus of local election officials, lawmakers and advocates who have criticized Hogan’s decision to require voters to apply for a mail-in ballot.

“The direction you have provided will require local Boards of Elections to, in essence, conduct two elections – a vote-by-mail election as well as a regular election,” the Democratic officials wrote. “This is a herculean task that not only keeps local election boards from building on the success and lessons learned in the vote-by-mail primary election, but sets up a course for failure.”

The letter was co-signed by Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski, Jr., Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich and Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks.

Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott (D), the favorite in the city’s mayoral election this fall, sent a separate letter to the governor Wednesday laying out the same concerns.

The local leaders worried that many polling centers across the state won’t be able to open as normal for the next election. Similar to the discussion in Baltimore City Hall Wednesday evening, the leaders wrote that the pandemic could also cause a shortage of poll workers.

“Many of our traditional polls are housed at K-12 public schools to which we have not had access during the pandemic,” they wrote. “Based on feedback we have already begun to receive, we believe there will be limited availability of private venues, like places of worship, community centers, nursing homes and senior centers, due to health and safety concerns.”

Hogan announced last week that, instead of automatically getting a mail-in ballot for the November election, voters in Maryland will instead receive absentee ballot applications. The state opted to automatically mail voters ballots in the June 2 primary. That election saw high voter turnout, but was also rife with errors.

Many voters, particularly those in Baltimore City, received late or incorrect ballots for the primary election. Those who opted to vote in person were met with long lines at the limited number of polling locations.

Hogan said last week that he hopes to avoid those mistakes by opening more polling locations and expanding early voting for the November election, but Democratic lawmakers and advocates have since called on Hogan to reverse his decision. Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said his decision could suppress voters.

The local leaders wrote that holding a traditional election in the midst of a pandemic won’t just put a damper on turnout, but will put both voters and poll workers at risk for COVID-19.

“We are most especially concerned that voters, unable to meet the ballot application deadline, will be forced to go to the polls, putting themselves and others at undue health risk,” the local leaders wrote.

Michael Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, did not respond to a question about the local leaders’ letter and would not say whether the governor would consider changing his mind.

The State Board of Elections was divided along party lines when it delivered its recommendations as to how to conduct the November election to Hogan. Elections board Chairman Michael R. Cogan, along with his fellow Republican board members Kelley A. Howells and William G. Voelp, supported a mix of in-person and mail-in ballots on Election Day, while Democrats Malcolm L. Funn and elections board Vice Chairman Patrick J. Hogan supported an entirely mail-in election.

Some prominent Republican leaders and members of the State Board of Elections expressed concerns over voter fraud if every voter was mailed a ballot, although such fraud is extremely rare. Cogan, on the other hand, worried that voter confidence in the election would falter if ballots are delivered to incorrect or outdated addresses.

Local election officials, Democratic lawmakers and advocates called on Hogan to keep the same format as the state’s primary elections despite the errors.

“We cannot overstate the devastating consequences likely to result if the State of Maryland does not plan now to mail every voter a ballot for the 2020 Presidential General Election,” David Garreis, the deputy director of the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections, wrote to Hogan, Lamone and Cogan before the decision was made last week.

Other states have seen mixed results when it came to mailing out absentee ballot applications to voters. Voters seemed to embrace the practice in Georgia, but the state’s recent primary saw a slew of errors including late ballots and hours-long lines at polling centers. In the District of Columbia, officials were overwhelmed by the amount of absentee ballot requests.

The June 2 primary was Maryland’s first statewide election conducted largely by mail — though the special 7th District congressional election, held on April 28, was also primarily conducted by mail.

Election officials scrambled to pull off the last-minute unprecedented election amid coronavirus-related shutdowns earlier this year. While Hogan opted to avoid mailing ballots to every registered voter again, he ordered election officials to emphasize absentee ballot use in November.

The State Board of Elections indicated it would comply with Hogan’s orders in a news release last week.

“The Board will move forward with plans for a traditional general election on November 3rd and will expand efforts to promote voting by mail, early voting, and voting at off-peak times,” the Board’s statement read. “The Board will continue to work closely with local boards of elections, stakeholders, and the general public to conduct a safe and accessible general election.”

Election officials spent the month of May educating voters about getting a mail-in ballot, Lamone told Baltimore City Council members Wednesday evening, and they’ll have to re-educate voters about filling out an absentee ballot application for November.

“We spent a lot of money in May telling people they’re going to get their ballots in the mail,” Lamone said. “That’s not going to happen this time.”

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Leaders Fret About Lack of Polling Places, Press Hogan to Change His Mind on Voting