Election reform had momentum heading into Maryland’s 2021 legislative session after voters overwhelmingly embraced absentee ballots, early voting and ballot drop-off boxes during the state’s highly unconventional 2020 election cycle.
A slew of ambitious reforms was introduced — including an unsuccessful push to make mail-in voting the default option and attempts to reform the State Board of Elections — but only a few made it to the finish line and the most consequential bills became law without a signature from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).
Among the newly enacted reforms are measures to create a permanent opt-in absentee ballot list, increase access to ballot-drop boxes, overhaul the state’s early voting center formula and improve ballot access for eligible voters in jail or prison. Fair elections advocates say they hope those reforms will mean more people will be able to vote.
“As our democracy evolves, as technology evolves, as society evolves, so should our systems of government and so should our systems of voting,” Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, said.
While Maryland lawmakers have sought to expand ballot access, legislators in other states are trying to restrict it. In some Republican-led states, such as Georgia and Texas, lawmakers have introduced legislation to place additional restrictions on mail-in voting and ballot-drop boxes.
“Maryland definitely positions itself as a leader on Democracy reforms,” Scarr said. “As we see other states restricting access to voting, Maryland has taken a big step forward this year to make sure voters are able to participate.”
House Bill 222, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), will expand access for eligible voters who are incarcerated and for those who have been released from custody. It does this by requiring the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to provide voter registration applications to everyone who is, or has been, in a a correctional facility. It also will require election officials to inform eligible voters who are incarcerated about their voting rights. Marylanders who are held in pretrial detention or serving time for misdemeanor convictions, as well as those who have been released from prison, have the right to vote in the state. Part of the bill that would’ve included ballot drop-off boxes for incarcerated people was stripped out before its passage, although SB 525, sponsored by Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City) will provide a drop-off box at Baltimore’s centralized booking facility.
Senate Bill 683, introduced by Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), and a coinciding House bill, also sponsored by Wilkins, will create a standing opt-in absentee ballot list, allowing voters to get mail-in ballots automatically, without having to reapply. The bill also requires election officials to consider a variety of factors when determining the location of ballot drop-off boxes — including making them accessible to historically disenfranchised communities and their proximity to dense concentrations of voters.
Senate Bill 283, or the Student and Military Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and cross-filed as HB 156 by Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), will require election officials to step up voter education and outreach efforts, and allow military and overseas voters to submit federal post card applications electronically using a federal Common Access Card.
Senate Bill 415, introduced by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), will create a tiered system for using public funds to match qualifying gubernatorial campaign contributions through the state’s Fair Campaign Finance Fund. To be eligible for matching funds, a candidate cannot accept any donations over $250. For the first $50 of a donation, $8 in public matching funds will be provided for each eligible private dollar, $6 per eligible private dollar for the second $50, $2 per eligible private dollar for the third $50 and no match funding for the remaining $100. Gubernatorial tickets previously received $1 in public funds for every $1 in eligible private contributions raised — or $1 for every $3 for tickets without opposition. Under the new law, candidates could receive up to $3 million in both the primary and general election, or $6 million in an election cycle. SB 415 also mandates enough money in the Fair Campaign Financing Fund to fully fund two gubernatorial campaigns in a primary election and one campaign in a general election, including a $4 million allocation for the 2023 fiscal year.
Senate Bill 596, sponsored by Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City) and cross-filed as HB 206 by Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), will expand the hours that early voting centers are open in primary and general elections. The new hours will be 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on each early voting day, for each election, instead of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for presidential general elections and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for all other regular primary and general elections. HB 745, another early voting center reform introduced by Del. Luedtke, enacted without Hogan’s signature earlier this year, will redefine the state’s formula for determining the number of early voting centers, and generally add more early voting sites to counties with more than 50,000 residents.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, and Scarr both said Hogan’s decision to let the bills become law without his signature rather than including them in his marathon bill signing last month was “disappointing.” Scarr said she was particularly hopeful that he would sign SB 415, since he previously participated in the state’s public campaign financing system.
Antoine said Hogan took “the right steps” in temporarily authorizing mail-in voting and ballot drop-off box expansion during the 2020 election cycle. She hoped he would sign bills that were “building off of what he did.”