Thousands of veteran election judges have dropped out, many of them retirees whose age or health conditions put them at high risk of deadly complications if they contract the coronavirus.
“I will not volunteer for an unnecessary suicide mission,” said Rebecca Wilson, 67, a chief election judge from Prince George’s County who has been a poll worker for 18 years.
As of Friday, even after 1,000 state workers took Hogan up on the offer of two days paid leave in exchange for staffing the polls in November, roughly a third of Maryland’s 27,000 election judge jobs remained vacant.
It is another example of the deadly pandemic weaving uncertainty though the presidential election process. As President Trump faces bipartisan rebuke for suggesting the election be delayed and undermining mail-in voting, Hogan is under withering criticism — and facing open revolt — from rank-and-file poll workers in his state.
Elections administrators are baffled by the moderate Republican governor’s unusual voting plan. After long lines and delays at the limited number of polling places open during the primary, Hogan proposed thinning Election Day crowds by sending absentee ballot applications to every voter and opening all precincts for those who choose to vote in-person on Nov. 3.
Maryland’s nonpartisan, local election boards — career bureaucrats tasked with finding poll workers — say the plan is fundamentally flawed.
“Without election judges, it will be impossible,” said David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. “Recruiting election judges is the most difficult task by the local boards in normal circumstances.”
The organization is meeting with Hogan’s deputy chief of staff soon to lobby for voting centers in places like stadiums or other large venues that can process thousands of voters, spread far apart, with minimal staff.
Hogan, meanwhile, has steadfastly rejected the criticism and deflected responsibility for how the election should be conducted in November, saying the Board of Elections should have already figured this out.
“This is their only job,” Hogan said in an interview. “They have no plan. . . . And so I said, ‘great, well, we’re going to just do it all-of-the-above.’ ”
The board voted 3 to 2, split along party lines, in early July to use a limited number of in-person voting centers and mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. Maryland is among eight states planning to mail absentee ballot applications because of the pandemic.
The two Democrats on the board also wanted limited in-person voting centers but preferred mailing ballots to every registered voter. Though it was considered as an option, neither side supported opening all of the state’s precincts.
Since board decisions require a four-vote supermajority, a rule geared at limiting partisanship and increasing transparency, the split vote did not count as an endorsement of any plan, leaving Hogan to go his own way.
Across the country, 29 states have enacted plans to let voters cast ballots from home without needing an excuse to do so, and all have provided some avenue to let people who need to vote in person to do so, said Richard H. Pildes, a constitutional law professor at NYU School of Law who has written about how critical it is to have in-person voting.
D.C. intends to open 80 voting centers across the city and mail every voter a ballot. Virginia residents must request an absentee ballot; they will not be sent an application. Much attention of voter rights advocates has focused on the eight states, including New York and Connecticut, that do not consider fear of the pandemic a legitimate reason to vote by mail.
Maryland appears to stand alone for having widespread backlash to its in-person voting alternative to supplement absentee balloting.
“I’m not aware of the kind of pushback from local elections officials that seems to be happening in Maryland right now happening elsewhere,” Pildes said. “That might be because in other states, the state officials are not requiring that every traditional polling precinct open.”
Hogan ordered the board to send absentee ballot applications in early July, hoping to encourage more ballots to be mailed early and avoid a last-minute surge in requests.
But any changes to the absentee ballot applications in Maryland — including renaming them “mail-in” ballots — involves a formal notification and approval process that takes a month. None can be mailed until after the state board approves them during a Wednesday meeting. And without an emergency proclamation from Hogan to change state law, none of those mailed-in ballots can be opened or counted until two days after Election Day.
“It could take weeks” to get results, said state administrator of elections Linda H. Lamone, who faced calls to step down after the problem-plagued June 2 primary.
Lamone told the Hogan administration and state lawmakers it will cost an extra $20 million to finance the plan, with a big portion of the cost due to sending an absentee ballot application to every voter in the state, plus return postage.
Public health experts, meanwhile, have cast the state’s precinct plan as reckless and suggested that requiring people to take initiative to request a ballot — rather than simply mailing one — might ultimately push more people into understaffed precincts with long lines and, potentially, high viral loads.
“The virus is hoping that a lot of people show up to vote, particularly in crowded places,” said Joshua M. Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former state health secretary under Hogan’s predecessor, Martin O’Malley (D). “The fewer people who are put in that position, the better.”
And majority-minority communities most vulnerable to the virus are also statistically most likely to have to wait in line to vote, according to a recent report on election planning and the pandemic from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Hogan, who has been lauded nationally for his response to the pandemic, said he shares the goal of keeping voters safe.
“My goal is to give everybody every possible opportunity to vote,” he said, adding that the state will provide all the personal protective equipment necessary to operate the polls.
Garreis, a deputy elections administrator in Anne Arundel County, said the costs of that are enormous: He estimated that getting plexiglass shields to separate 6,000 election check-in judges from voters could add up to $1 million just for his county.
The governor has resisted calls for an entirely or mostly mail-in election by Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) and a coalition of voting rights groups, public health doctors and activists, saying the June primary was an “unmitigated disaster.”
The board sent some English-speaking voters ballots in Spanish. The company in charge of mailing out ballots sent many of them late. Some people reported never receiving their ballots, and others got multiple ballots. Limited polling locations in Baltimore City and elsewhere led to hours-long waits.
“Frankly, I think that election went well under the circumstances,” Lamone said this week. “Look what happened: People showed up at the polling place with their mailed ballot in hand. . . . They wanted to watch it go into the machine. We didn’t anticipate that, and there was no way to react to it. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Lamone, who did not share her opinion on how the election should be conducted, said she’s concerned about local boards being able to process all the ballot application requests, mailed-in ballots and early voting and Election Day ballots, all while observing social distancing.
Hogan is unsympathetic and unmoved.
“All we’ve heard is a bunch of arguing and whining,” he said. “We’re going to have to take these actions or they’re going to fail miserably like they did during the primary.”
Steve Johns, 62, said the governor’s plan vastly underestimates what it takes to run an election or show up to be a low-level election judge, as Johns has in Prince George’s for the past two elections.
“The [rule] book is almost as thick as a school textbook,” he said. “If you want to do it well, you have to read it and pay attention in class.”
Johns took the election-judge training in January, before the pandemic hit Maryland. But he refused to serve after Hogan announced his all-precinct plan.
“There will be people who die from this decision,” he said. “As much as I’d like to help, but you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? You don’t have the second two if you’ve lost the first.”
Others, like Karen Nitkin of Howard County, are coming forward for the first time, drawn by what they see as the urgency of the situation.
“It is almost, literally, the least I could do,” said Nitkin, whose daughter waited in line for three hours to vote in an understaffed Georgia precinct during the primary. When Nitkin filled out her absentee ballot application in Maryland, she checked the box asking if she was willing to be an election judge.
She’s concerned about the health risk, but she’s confident in the precautions and willing to withstand it for one day, especially because others are taking similar risks just to earn a paycheck.
“I wouldn’t want to do it every day,” she said. “But there are people who work at Target every day, and I wouldn’t want to do that either. If there’s ever an essential service, this is it.”