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Maryland to open all polling places on Election Day, mail application for absentee ballot to each voter

Voters at Edmondson-Westside High School in Baltimore waited in long lines on June 2 because of social distancing and cleaning measures.
Voters at Edmondson-Westside High School in Baltimore waited in long lines on June 2 because of social distancing and cleaning measures. (Lauren Lumpkin/The Washington Post)

Maryland will conduct November’s election as a “normal” affair, Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday, opening every precinct and early-voting center while arming election workers with protective equipment to limit spread of the novel coronavirus.

Hogan (R) did not endorse a proposal to mail ballots to every voter, as the state did for its June 2 primary. He said he will ask the Board of Elections to instead send an application to vote by mail to all eligible voters, part of an effort to reduce how many people need to vote in person.

His directive selects an option that election officials had previously discarded as unworkable because of logistical challenges.

But the governor said he hopes the approach will spread out crowds by giving people multiple avenues to cast a ballot. He said he is recommending a “normal election” operation to avoid the long lines and other problems that plagued the June primary.

“We’re very frustrated with the way the election was handled in the primary,” Hogan said during an interview on WBAL’s “C4 Show” on Wednesday. “Mistakes were definitely made, and it was unacceptable and inexcusable that they screwed up so much with respect to getting the ballots out on time and getting them out to everybody.”

Problems during June 2 primary prompt calls for election officials to resign

States across the country have struggled to strike a balance between a secure election that doesn’t worsen the coronavirus pandemic and one that provides access to the ballot box. In Maryland, thousands of mailed primary ballots went missing or were delayed. Other people received multiple ballots.

The number of polling places open for the primary was significantly lower than usual, and there were strict cleaning regimens between voters, leading to waits that stretched to several hours in some places and results that were delayed by days or more.

The problems prompted calls for the resignation of Linda H. Lamone, Maryland’s longtime director of the State Board of Elections. Lamone remains on the job.

The elections board — which split along partisan lines last week over whether to conduct a mostly mail-in election or one that encouraged people to apply for absentee ballots — issued a statement Wednesday saying it would implement Hogan’s directive.

“The Board will move forward with plans for a traditional general election on November 3rd and will expand efforts to promote voting by mail, early voting, and voting at offpeak times,” the statement said. “The Board will continue to work closely with local boards of elections, stakeholders, and the general public to conduct a safe and accessible general election.”

All five members of the board had voted last week in favor of limiting in-person voting, rather than a traditional election. The three Republican members backed mailing applications for absentee ballots to every voter, while the two Democrats wanted ballots mailed.

Trump’s attacks on mail voting are turning Republicans against it

A report released by the board last week expressed concern about whether election officials could recruit enough poll workers and judges for full-fledged in-person voting and locate enough voting locations amid the pandemic.

“The local boards are not confident they can staff all precinct level locations,” the report said.

Local election officials would have a hard time preparing for a normal election at the same time as they process a surge in absentee ballot requests, the report said. And they doubt they can secure enough personal protective equipment to serve an estimated 20,000 poll workers at 1,700 locations across the state.

Hogan said the state would provide all the equipment, sanitation and other supplies necessary to meet federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“We want to make sure that they give everybody every single possible chance to vote and not overwhelm the system,” Hogan said on the radio show Wednesday.

State Sen. Dolores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), chair of the Finance Committee, said Hogan’s decision not to mail ballots to voters proactively could lead to voter suppression.

She accused Hogan, who is considering a 2024 presidential run, of taking a more conservative stance on the issue to appeal to Republicans, including President Trump, who have expressed concern about voting by mail.

“This has nothing to do with what’s good for Maryland,” Kelley said. “This is about talking to a national audience of conservative Republicans.”

Michael R. Cogan, a Republican who chairs the state elections board, said at a meeting June 30 that mailing ballots to every voter could lead to “fraud.”

“It may be this will be an election where voters need to take responsibility for themselves,” Cogan said. “It’ll be our job to make sure they have the tools that they need.”

The Democrats who preside over the Maryland General Assembly issued a statement Wednesday praising Hogan for “finally” making a decision about the November election. But they raised concern that his plan could not be executed if local officials can’t find the staff or volunteers.

“We hope the Governor will maintain maximum flexibility so that, should the pandemic worsen, or Election Judges are unable to be found, we can pivot to ensure that no Maryland voter is disenfranchised,” said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (Baltimore City). “It is now incumbent upon every election official and elected leader to work together to make this election a success. Failure is not an option.”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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