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Democrats, over GOP objections, say bill will improve mail-in voting

Tamara Debnam, an elections assistant for the Baltimore City Board of Elections, sorts mail-in ballots at a canvasing warehouse ahead of the 7th Congressional District special election on April 27, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate approved emergency legislation that supporters said would improve mail-in voting in Maryland in advance of the 2022 elections.

The 33-14 mostly party-line vote Tuesday — only Sen. Ed Reilly, R-Anne Arundel split from his party — sends the bill to the House of Delegates. Only Senate Republicans objected to the bill they said widens the opportunity for fraud in mail-in elections without some way to audit results.

“There’s an opaqueness to the process,” said Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll and Senate minority whip.

“It lends itself to conspiracy theories. It lends itself to people feeling like they don’t have a voice or feeling frustrated,” he said.

Republicans unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to the bill that would require fraud audits on samples of mail-in ballots. Those audits could be expanded if problems were discovered in the sample.

“If we’re going to count a ballot once we get it and we’re not checking anything other than against the voter rolls, which anecdotally have been found to have lots of mistakes in them …we ought to have some kind of check,” said Ready.

The ongoing pandemic wreaked havoc on elections around the country. In Maryland, mail-in voting was expanded in an effort to allow people to vote while also limiting large gatherings that could become potential health threats.

The bill passed by the Senate makes four changes to state election law for mail-in ballots. Republicans expressed concern about two of those provisions.

Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the bill, says the legislation “replicates much of the process that worked very well in 2020 and is at the request of the Maryland Association of Election Officials.” (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the bill, said the legislation “replicates much of the process that worked very well in 2020 and is at the request of the Maryland Association of Election Officials.”

One change empowers local boards to allow voters to fix a technical mistake related to a missing signature on the outside of the ballot.

Maryland requires voters to sign the “oath” on the outside of the mail-in ballot. But the signature is not verified against one on file. In 2020, there were issues with missing signatures on mail-in ballots.

Ballots that are not signed are not counted.

“The importance of this bill is it allows a ballot to be what’s called cured if the ballot oath has not been signed, that ballot would not be counted,” said Kagan, who is also vice chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “We offer the local boards of election the opportunity using a lot of different formats to connect with voters and have them cure their ballots so it can be counted.”

But Republicans worried voters would be barred from casting legal votes at the polls while a fraudulent mail-in ballot cast in their name is counted.

“I’m not one to say these elections have been filled with fraud by any means, but I do think that this piece of legislation is being changed unfortunately to promote voter fraud,” said Sen. Steve Hershey, R-Upper Shore. “By taking a ballot that simply requires a signature that is not checked over an actual person voting, I don’t think that’s the way this (Senate) should be going in making election law changes.”

Another requires election boards to count the first legal ballot received. The change resolves a conflict seen in 2020 in cases where a voter mailed in a ballot but later voted in person using a provisional ballot.

“If you get a fraudulent ballot that we’re not checking for, that will be accepted in this process,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel and the leader of the Republicans. “And the person who is actually the voter comes in, their ballot will be rejected. We’ve changed the process.”

Kagan said the process of allowing a voter to vote with a provisional ballot in cases where a mail-in was requested “remains unchanged.”

In 2020, there were cases of this after concerns about delays in delivering mail caused some to try to vote at a polling place after mailing in a ballot.

Under current law, the board would have to reject both ballots. Kagan’s bill changes that.

“If a (mail-in) ballot comes in first, it should be counted first and not the provisional ballot,” said Kagan.

“The first legal (ballot) counts.”