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Md. voter education program in limbo

A stalled plan to educate voters on a new paper balloting system has some good government groups asking the Board of Public Works to reconsider its June decision to reject a nearly $2 million public awareness campaign.

With no Plan B immediately in place there is growing concern for the April 2016 presidential primary elections and some angst over a municipal election in Rockville next month.

“A lot of us will be watching what happens in Rockville on Nov. 3,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “We feel bad for the voters there, but the municipal elections will be an opportunity to see where people are struggling and where we need to focus.”

Common Cause Maryland is one of a half-dozen state and national groups that have called on the Board of Public Works to reconsider its rejection of spending on an education campaign aimed at teaching voters how the new paper ballot voting process works.

“There are some tricks that you need to know in order for your vote to be properly counted,” Bevan-Dangel said. “Every time there is a change in technology it takes a while to adapt to the change. I have a smartphone and every time I get a new one it always takes some time to adapt to it. With voting, if that means my vote doesn’t count, that means we have a problem.”

Nikki Charlson, deputy state elections administrator, said the agency is working on a stripped-down voter education brochure. The costs of such a plan were not immediately available. A state request for proposals related to the costs of such an effort was scheduled to close on Friday afternoon.

“We’re working on Plan B to develop a uniform message for our voters,” Charlson said. “State law requires that we have a statewide campaign to introduce a new voting system. Right now, counties are having to develop their own materials for their outreach events. We hope to be able to provide a uniform message over the next several months.”

Whether the money for such program is still available remains a question. A spokesman for the governor said funds for a different version of a voter education outreach effort remain available. Elections officials are not so sure.

“We were given a different message,” Charlson said, referring to a letter from state Budget Secretary David Brinkley that outlines about $121 million in budget reductions.

The letter sent to the Senate Budget and Taxation and House Appropriations Committees lists the $900,000 state Board of Elections portion of the voter outreach program as a “targeted reversion” that would be part of the administration’s effort to reduce state agency expenditures by 2 percent across the board.

An additional $900,000 that comes from local boards of election could not be spent for the outreach program unless the state also contributes.

Douglass Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, said the administration recognizes the legal requirement for voter education but disagreed with the initial plan and the expense.

“We’re happy to look at any proposal,” Mayer said. “They can always bring things back before the board. The administration made itself pretty clear where it stood on the proposed appropriation.”

Mayer said the money, though targeted for reversion, remains available for a revised voter education program.

“There’s a law (requiring voter education),” Mayer said. “It’s the plan that they brought” that is at issue.

The $1.8 million contract with Baltimore-based Alexander & Tom was supposed to provide information and education about the new system in advance of the 2016 presidential election, which typically sees higher turnout than the gubernatorial elections. The money would have also been spent on an advertising campaign at area sporting events meant to alert voters to the existence of new machines rather than their use.

Rutherford and Comptroller Peter Franchot voted against the contract in June when it came before them at the two-person Board of Public Works. Rutherford was sitting in for Hogan, who normally is on the board with Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

Rutherford argued at the time that the move to a paper ballot would not ultimately confuse the public in a way that justified spending for an advertising campaign.

“I just think the public is smarter than, it’s smart enough to understand,” Rutherford said at that meeting. “And there are things such as your own website, there is this newfangled thing called the Internet and the, and YouTube that you can put out your own information in terms of how to vote. I don’t remember when I went from punch card, the hanging chads, to electronic. I don’t remember anyone doing this big PR and education program. I just don’t think it’s necessary. And somewhere along the line we have to say people are smart enough to figure this out. We want people to vote. But there’s quality education in this state.”

Mayer said the administration stands by those comments but would be open to reviewing a new proposal that “falls into the administration’s stated goals of shepherding taxpayers dollars in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.”