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Hogan orders in-person elections with mail-in options

A line of full ballot boxes at a polling place in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore city. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

A line of full ballot boxes at a polling place in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore city. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Maryland will open all its polling places for the November general election but still will make mail-in ballots widely available.

Gov. Larry Hogan, in a letter to the State Board of Elections, said the state will hold elections in November that look  like a traditional election, including early voting centers, but with additional options, including widespread use of absentee ballots — choosing the second of three options sent to him by the State Board of Elections.

“The fundamental responsibility of the State Board of Elections is to conduct free and fair elections in a manner that facilitates maximum voter participation,” Hogan wrote in his letter. “This approach — which is already fully authorized by existing state law — will maximize participation in the November election by offering voters more options while minimizing confusion and risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The decision comes 118 days before the November election and follows a primary election that was delayed and ultimately altered by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Maryland, in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus, moved to an election conducted mostly by mail with a small number of in-person centers open for voters.

The primary, however, was plagued with problems, including ballots mailed late to Baltimore city and Montgomery County; thousands of mailed ballots returned because of incorrect addresses; proofing problems on city ballots that delayed results; and long lines for those who wished to vote in person.

Hogan, in his letter to the board, said he remains “concerned about the series of failures that — while not intended — potentially resulted in disenfranchisement and suppression of primary voters. Thousands of Marylanders either did not receive their ballots or received erroneous or late ballots, and thousands more stood in lines for many hours on primary day. This was and remains completely unacceptable.”

Hogan, in his release said the option he selected was already provided for within state law and chided the panel — three of the five members are Republican — for “failure to provide a recommendation on how to conduct the election.”

The board provided three options to the governor earlier this month as part of a more than 80-page report on the primary election.

The remaining options called for a traditional in-person election or to conduct an election similar to the June 2 primary.

The State Board of Elections issues a statement saying it would “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 will continue to work closely with local boards of elections, stakeholders, and the general public to conduct a safe and accessible general election.”

Following the primary election, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and Comptroller Peter Franchot called for longtime state elections Administrator Linda Lamone to resign. Current state law makes it very difficult for the board to oust Lamone.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have made their own suggestions about how to conduct elections.

One proposal backed by Senate President Bill Ferguson called for a hybrid mail-in ballot election.

“We are pleased the governor finally made a decision that included early voting and Election Day precinct-level voting, but we share the concerns that local election officials will not have the staff or resources to process that many vote by mail applications in a timely manner,” said Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones in a joint statement.

The legislative leaders called on Hogan to provide adequate protective equipment, staff and a public awareness campaign.

“We hope the governor will maintain maximum flexibility so that, should the pandemic worsen, or Election Judges are unable to be found, we can pivot to ensure that no Maryland voter is disenfranchised,” the presiding officers said in their statement. “It is now incumbent upon every election official and elected leader to work together to make this election a success. Failure is not an option.”

Republican lawmakers had urged Hogan and elections officials to avoid a mail-in election, calling the primary effort chaotic. Instead, they urged resumption of traditional in-person voting with absentee ballots available to anyone who requested one.

“We appreciate the governor acknowledging our concerns and dismissing any suggestions that called for the unsolicited mailing of thousands of ballots,” said Sen. Steve Hershey, R-Upper Shore and the Senate Minority Whip.

Hogan called on the elections panel to ignore political considerations.

“While I know you have been inundated with suggestions from political leaders in both parties and special interest groups to change the electoral process, this discussion should not be subject to undue partisanship or political influence,” Hogan wrote. “Providing citizens with accessible, accountable, and transparent ways to cast their ballot is an essential component of our democratic republic and your primary responsibility.”

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