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Montgomery County executive calls for special session to deal with mail-in voting veto

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich on Wednesday called for a special session and compromise on a vetoed mail-in voting law.

The leader of the most populous jurisdiction in the state said Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill last Friday will sow angst and conspiracy theories in the 2022 election.

“I hope the governor will consider some way of ensuring people have confidence in the vote by ensuring the votes get counted on time and not delayed,” Elrich told reporters.

Hogan announced the vetoes as part of a final tranche of bills that were passed by the General Assembly.

The identical House and Senate bills would allow local boards of election to process mail-in ballots starting eight days before the start of early voting and ending the day early voting begins. Results from those ballots would be announced on election night after polls close.

The bills sent to Hogan effectively codified how mail-in ballots were handled in 2020. It also settled a conflict in cases where a voter mails in a ballot but then attempts to vote in person.

“If we’re going to expand ballot curing, why would we not also bolster ballot oversight?” said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan.

Elrich argued that Hogan’s vetoes now mean local boards of election will be handcuffed from processing ballots until two days after the election.

Ricci said he would not “engage on hypotheticals” related to a special session, adding “but you’ve hit on another drawback, which was an election bill that called for changes so close to an election. It’s also worth noting that this bill wasn’t presented early, along with what were considered leadership’s highest priorities.”

The chasm between Democrats and Republicans on mail-in voting is not insignificant. Democrats are more likely to take advantage of early and expanded vote-by-mail options. Republicans tend to vote on election day.

In 2020, President Donald Trump won the election day vote in many states only to see margins shrink or disappear as mail-in ballots were tabulated. The results gave rise to some conspiracy theories that results were tampered with.

In Maryland, the largest of the state’s jurisdictions are home to more Democrats. Smaller more rural counties favor Republicans.

“I don’t think that psychologically people need to hear that once again you’re not going to know vote results for two more days or three more days because we’re not counting votes that were mailed in until two days later,” Elrich told reporters. “I think it causes unnecessary anxiety. We’ve already seen what people are able to do with a story like this and spin it into a tale that has no bearing on reality but still finds an anchor in the community. And I believe that it would be worthwhile, if for no other purpose, to get into a special session to discuss amending the bill so it addresses the part that is critical to getting the votes processed on time and leave the rest of it for debate another day.”

Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, dismissed Elrich’s concerns.

“It’s irresponsible to assert without evidence that there will be all kinds of mass confusion in the days after the election,” said Ricci. “Moreover, the governor’s letter noted that early canvassing was a positive in the bill. Ideally, Sen. (Cheryl) Kagan would have pursued a bipartisan bill based on that kind of common ground rather than a partisan measure that didn’t get through until the last hours of the session. ”

Hogan, in his veto message, rejected the legislation not because of what was in the measure but what was not included.

“Yet, as our vote by mail numbers rise, the missing piece in this legislation is that balance – for even the appearance of impropriety or the opportunity for fraud can be enough to undermine citizens’ confidence in their electoral system,” Hogan wrote in his veto letter.

The governor criticized the legislation for not requiring signature verification and banning so-called ballot harvesting. Both have been concerns raised repeatedly by Republican lawmakers and rejected by the Democratic majority.

Hogan issued the veto Friday afternoon at the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend as part of more than 200 bills that went into law without his signature or were rejected.

Elrich said a special session on a compromise bill could solve problems for large counties such as his.

But neither a compromise nor a special session are likely needed.

Bills passed in the fourth year of a term cannot be overridden in January when the new General Assembly is seated. A summer special session before the primary wouldn’t require a compromise as Elrich suggested.

Democrats who hold a super majority in the House and Senate could call a special session to deal with the issue. Both bills passed with numbers indicating the ability to simply override Hogan.

But there seems to be little will in the General Assembly to call a special session weeks before early voting begins.

Historically, the General Assembly has shied away from passing election law in the last year of a term. The pandemic and the massive increase in mail-in voting required some action.

Sources familiar with election law said there were other options rather than a special session.

In many cases, the State Board of Elections could pass emergency regulations to address issues such as curing missing signatures and conflicts when a voter mails in a ballot but also votes in person. A legislative panel could approve those regulations in time for the July primary.

Additionally, state law allows state or local boards of election to go to court to seek a waiver on some ballot-counting laws under extreme circumstances.

But the state and local boards are controlled by Republicans appointed by Hogan, raising questions about whether any would authorize a lawsuit.