Members of the state Board of Public Works Wednesday raised questions about how Maryland will successfully conduct two upcoming elections.
The State Board of Elections is expected to meet Thursday and finalize a plan for the primary election that was delayed from April 28 to June 2. Some lawmakers, including House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson, are calling for June elections to be held in person.
“I’m highly skeptical about this ability of the state to pull off a mail-order election,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot, adding that he has concerns about “an accurate and timely counting of the votes to prevent delays in announcing election results such as we had in California.”
Franchot acknowledged that concerns about the COVID-19 are complicating the election but said he was wary of the current plan.
“I certainly don’t take any pleasure in how difficult it is, but we are marching into a brand new program,” said Franchot. “I do have some major concerns about whether we can pull it off with the confidence of the voters as a result.”
Linda Lamone, state elections administrator, downplayed comparisons to California, noting that state did not hold a statewide election by mail. Lamone said how the state handles the coming election in June will depend heavily on predictions from the state Health Department regarding the anticipated spread of the virus by June and whether person-to-person contact can happen without increased risk of infection.
“There’s some factors out there that are completely beyond our control,” said Lamone.
Jones and Ferguson, in a letter released Tuesday, called on Gov. Larry Hogan to ensure that the June 2 presidential primary election would include a vote-in-person option. Hogan ordered the primary delayed and directed the state board to find a way to hold the special election to elect a successor to the late Rep. Elijah Cummings without potentially exposing voters or elections workers to COVID-19.
In the past, the General Assembly has rejected bills that would have legalized a vote-by-mail system in Maryland.
“I think seeing what takes place in April with one congressional district is going to tell us a lot of what can be done when we’re going statewide,” said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford. “We’re going to have to really pay attention to that and see what’s going to come about.”
Last week, the State Board of Elections approved a plan to implement a mail-only election rather than open the polls in portions of three jurisdictions of the state’s 7th Congressional District.
“The board felt that under the circumstances .. and now that we’re in an even more dire situation that we needed to minimize any person-to-person contact,” said Lamone.
“Part of the problem we’re having with person-to-person voting is the availability or nonavailability of public transportation, especially in the urban areas,” said Lamone.
But the move has raised questions about voter turnout and access for the disabled as well as the need to ensurre ballot confidentiality and security.
Lamone said she anticipates a low voter turnout.
“With everything going on with the virus, it’s down (voter turnout) all over the place,” said Lamone.
Rutherford also worried that voters within the congressional district would not be aware of the mail-in only election and might not receive a ballot because they’ve moved and haven’t updated their address with the board.
“Mailing at this point and particularly mailing ballots seems to me you’re going to get a lot of those coming back,” said Rutherford. “I think at this point mailing out ballots, you have to do it, but I think you’re going to miss a lot of people who may have moved maybe some place else or are in the hospital or whatever it may be.”
The first batch of ballots was expected to be mailed Wednesday, with all ballots mailed by Friday, according to Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Charlson.
“We need to get the ballots out and that’s what’s happening,” Charlson said. “Getting them out four weeks before the election gives us time to receive them back and try to find the voter as well as we’re getting calls from voters requesting to change their address as they hear about this change and understand it.”