As Maryland lawmakers weigh measures to permanently expand mail-in ballots, a Democratic legislator wants to make mail-in voting materials easier for voters to understand.
HB 1345, introduced by House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), would require state election officials to create “consistent designs” for mail-in voting materials and to use wording that is easier for voters to understand.
The bill would require state election officials to use “best practices for plain language” on all absentee voting materials. That includes envelopes, forms and instructions mailed to voters who decide to use mail-in ballots, according to the bill.
At a Ways and Means Committee hearing Tuesday, Kaiser said she and her wife were both surprised by lengthy, convoluted instructions sent to voters when they sat down to fill out their own mail-in ballots last year.
“We just looked at each other and said ‘who writes these instructions?’” Kaiser recalled.
Kaiser is not the only Marylander who found mail-in ballot instructions onerous during last year’s election. Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said her organization encountered many voters who found voting materials confusing.
Some voters can actually be disenfranchised when ballot materials aren’t written using simple sentences and familiar words, voting accessibility expert Kathryn Summers said.
“It really benefits everyone” — including voters with high and low literacy levels — when election officials use plain language, said Summers, a professor at the University of Baltimore.
Since nearly half of Maryland voters opted to use absentee ballots during the 2020 general election, advocates argue that legislators need to act quickly to ensure mail-in ballot materials are easily understood by the entire electorate.
Janet Millenson of the Maryland League of Women Voters said mail-in ballot use will likely grow in the 2022 election.
“The time to prepare for that increase is now,” Millenson said.
Kaiser’s proposal also provides for mail-in ballot curing, meaning that ballots wouldn’t be automatically rejected if voters don’t sign an oath on the ballot envelope. The legislation would require election officials to notify voters when there is a correctable problem with their ballot and give them an opportunity to fix the error.
Lawmakers also are mulling a proposal to create curbside voting, potentially a more accessible voting option for people with disabilities.
HB 1020, sponsored by Del. Nicole A. Williams (D-Prince George’s), would allow voters to cast ballots at a designated location that is outside a polling place and under the observation of election judges, according to a Department of Legislative Services analysis of the bill.
Curbside voting locations would have to be located within 150 feet of a polling place, be in “plain view” of election judges and be equipped to allow voters to fill out ballots without assistance unless needed.
Exactly how many polling locations would be required to offer curbside voting in each county is still up for debate. The original proposal called for all polling places to offer curbside voting, but that number was reduced in an amendment due to concerns from the Maryland Association of Election Officials.
Katherine Berry, Carroll County’s elections director, told the committee that local election officials have “serious logistical concerns” over offering curbside voting.
Kaiser floated the idea of offering a pilot program first to alleviate local boards of elections’ worries about implementing curbside voting.
Williams’ bill has the support of Anthony Coehlo (D), the primary architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Williams said. Lou Ann Blake of the National Federation of the Blind said her organization supports the bill – provided that curbside voting allows voters to use accessible ballot marking devices as needed.
Advocates push back on signature verification
Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington) is sponsoring a bill that would require officials to verify signatures on ballot applications and on returned envelopes containing cast mail-in ballots. He contends the measure would increase voter confidence in mail-in ballots.
Parrott’s proposal is part of a larger push by Republican lawmakers to put more conservative voting safeguards in place, such as requiring voters to show identification before casting their ballots. Republicans have argued that measures such as signature verification are necessary to assuage voter fears about fraud. Voting rights advocates warn the proposals may reduce voter participation.
Parrott’s bill would also require election officials to notify voters and ask for additional proof of identity if a signature can’t be identified..
“This is a way to address some of the concerns that some people, including members of my federation, have about protecting our vote,” Diana Waterman of the National Federation of Republican Women told committee members.
Advocates pushed back on Parrott’s proposal Tuesday. Blake, of the National Federation of the Blind, argued that requiring signature verification would make voting harder for people with disabilities. She said the proposed reform “offers a solution to a problem that does not exist.”
Blake said that, if people are requesting a mail-in ballot, they may not have the time or ability to go to the local board of elections to fix a signature issue – and pointed out that handwriting changes over time, and a voter’s signature may look different over the years.