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Editorial Advisory Board: Hogan should reconsider ill-advised election plan

On July 8, Gov. Larry Hogan directed the State Board of Elections to open every precinct and early voting center in Maryland for the November General Election. The Governor also directed the state board to send an absentee ballot application to each Maryland voter.

Hogan’s decision to open every precinct and early voting center is contrary to the recommendation of all five members of the State Board of Elections; only sending applications, as opposed to absentee ballots, is contrary to the recommendation of two members of the board. We urge Hogan to reconsider his decision and direct the board to conduct the November general election the same way that the June 2 primary election was held.

When the impact of the COVID-19 virus on Maryland became apparent in March, Hogan declared a state of emergency and, among other things, postponed the April 28 primary election to June 2. The governor directed the State Board of Elections to develop a plan for safely holding the election.

Ultimately each Maryland registered voter was supposed to be sent an absentee ballot, and limited facilities for in-person voting on election day were put in place. Although the June 2 primary was not problem-free, it was not marked by the significant problems that other states experienced with their primary elections held this spring.

After the June 2 primary, the State Board of Elections discussed three options for the November general election: (1) traditional in-person voting at all precincts; (2) mailing applications but not actual absentee ballots to each voter; and (3) mailing absentee ballots to each voter.

The members of the board were unanimous in their recommendation that traditional in-person voting at every precinct would not be a good idea; they split regarding the absentee voting process. The three Republican members recommended that voters be sent an application for an absentee ballot and only be sent an actual ballot if requested; the two Democratic members recommended that each voter be sent an actual absentee ballot.

Hogan’s directive to open each precinct and early voting center for the November general election fails to take into account the reality of COVID-19. Many election judges are over 60 and are at significant risk for contracting COVID-19. Further, no one can say with any level of certainty that conditions will be better in November than they were in June.

The governor has proposed that state employees could take the place of elections judges who are unable to serve. But having inexperienced workers at the polls, as opposed to men and women who have done the job for years, is a recipe for disaster. Further, lines at polling places could put voters at risk, too.

The two-step process for absentee ballots was opposed by every local election official as adding a level of complication to the process of getting absentee ballots to voters. The process used for the June primary involved each voter being automatically mailed a ballot. Then the voter had the option to mail back a completed ballot for a total of two mailings.

The process Hogan has adopted requires four mailings for an absentee vote – an initial mailing of an application for an absentee ballot, the voter’s mailing the application requesting an absentee ballot, the local board of elections then mailing an absentee ballot pursuant to an individual request, and the return of the completed ballot. Again, adding complication and additional mailings is a recipe for disaster, especially given potential delays in mail delivery for each of the four mailings.

We share Hogan’s desire for a normal election. But these are not normal times. Recently President Trump recognized the reality that an in-person Republican National Convention was impossible due to COVID-19.  Hogan should come to the same realization regarding the November general election and order the State Board to conduct the election the same way that the June primary was held.

Unlike the primary election, the general election cannot be postponed should conditions change for the worse in September or October. The date for the general election in presidential election years is set by federal statute, and the electoral college process has precise dates that the states must meet for their votes to be counted.

The time for Hogan to act is now. With three months to go between now and the November general election, the State Board of Elections and local election boards still have time to correct issues that arose with the June primary — such as late delivery of absentee ballots —  and to educate voters regarding absentee voting, put in place processes to prevent election fraud, and plan for the counting of a large number of absentee ballots.

Editorial Advisory Board members Arthur F. Fergenson and Debra G. Schubert did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Stephen Z. Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio (on leave)

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.