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Maryland court delays state’s primary until July amid redistricting challenge

A woman prepares to vote at a polling place in Silver Spring during the 2018 primary. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Maryland’s highest court on Tuesday moved the state’s gubernatorial primary elections to July 19, a three-week delay, to allow time to resolve a legal challenge to recently redrawn legislative districts.

The order, signed by Chief Judge Joseph M. Getty of the Maryland Court of Appeals, comes as the court weighs four challenges to the redrawn maps. Opponents argue that the maps violate the state constitution and are gerrymandered.

Several candidates in the crowded race for governor — where 10 Democrats and three Republicans are vying to succeed term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — welcomed the court decision, which gives them more time to raise their profile before the primary. But some observers worried that pushing the election into prime vacation season could prompt voter confusion or disenfranchisement.

“If you’re a candidate who is still trying to get name recognition and have an impact, every extra day is a gift,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “But on the other hand, how many people are going to be paying attention to politics then? People tend to tune it out over the summer.”

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The primary had been scheduled for June 28. The court also extended the filing deadline to April 15, with the deadline for withdrawing moved to April 18.

Tuesday’s action by the court is its second in recent weeks affecting the primary. Last month, it delayed the filing deadlines for the then-June gubernatorial primary from Feb. 22 to March 22.

The court had previously scheduled a hearing on the legal challenges for March 23 and said it could continue until March 25. Getty noted in the order that it would thereby extend beyond the March 22 filing deadline, leading to the decision to delay the primary.

A separate bench trial over Maryland’s new congressional map — passed on a party-line vote in the General Assembly in December — began Tuesday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Democratic strategist Justin Schall called the delay “judicial overreach that is going to have a chilling effect” on voter turnout.

Maryland’s primary had been scheduled for late June, to coincide with the end of the school year before many families started leaving town. Schall said the judge could have continued to hear the case and adjust the maps for future elections.

“Any time you move an election, you create massive voter confusion,” he said. “It’s the equivalent, whether it’s intentional or not, of voter suppression. That’s bad for democracy, that’s bad for Maryland, that’s bad for elections.”

“I am deeply concerned and can’t imagine a more inconvenient time to hold an election or an outcome that will cause more confusion for voters,” said Rushern Baker, the former Prince George’s County executive who is mounting his second bid for governor. “This latest mess ... is a stark reminder that we need to reform the process by which our congressional and legislative district maps are chosen. Because whichever side of the aisle you happen to be on, it’s clear this isn’t working.”

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Doug Mayer, a Republican strategist and spokesman for an organization challenging the maps, celebrated the delay. He called the court decisions “clear signs that the courts are taking this issue very seriously.”

“You know it’s a victory for democracy when the people complaining the loudest are the Annapolis insiders guilty of the crimes in question,” he said.

Tom Perez, a Democratic candidate for governor, noted in a statement that he helped enforce voting rights at the Department of Justice and appreciated that “courts need adequate opportunity to carefully review these cases.”

Perez was excited, he said, to have more time to share his campaign’s vision “to bring jobs, justice and opportunity to every Marylander in every jurisdiction of our great state.”

Joseph O’Hearn, campaign manager to former Obama education secretary John B. King Jr., said the campaign looked forward to having more time to “draw contrast” with other candidates. The campaign hopes, O’Hearn said, that “everyone will do everything they can to make sure voters are educated on the change so that no one is disenfranchised.”

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Quincey Gamble, a Democratic consultant, said the delay, especially of the filing deadline, is likely to create some angst for candidates in local races, since it gives potential challengers more time to ponder a run. Meanwhile, incumbents are left wondering who their challengers are.

For gubernatorial candidates, the problem for some could be keeping their campaigns afloat.

“I’m sure candidates and finance staff are at work figuring out whether they have enough to last the three weeks,” Gamble said. "The folks who are most happy are the TV stations. It’s a couple more weeks of ads.”