Maryland should do the same. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced Tuesday that the state would move its primary from April 28 to June 2. Meanwhile, the State Board of Elections is devising a plan to safely conduct the election. The answer, however, will be on display in the 7th Congressional District, where a special election to fill the House seat of the late representative Elijah E. Cummings (D) will be held using absentee votes only.
Universal vote-by-mail offers a clear solution for how to run an election in a pandemic. But it’s not so easy. Many states simply don’t have the capacity to implement a widespread system change in a short period of time.
Maryland, however, is better positioned than most. It already allows for “no-excuse” absentee voting — meaning any voter can request an absentee ballot, regardless of circumstance. State election officials should immediately mail every registered voter an absentee ballot application and vigorously promote the online application through social media. Maryland should also provide paid postage on return envelopes for every absentee ballot it mails out.
It’s not clear where we will be with the coronavirus outbreak come the general election in November, let alone the new primary date in June. The state will need to quickly come up with a plan to switch to vote-at-home without running into logistical nightmares. The good news is, another state already shows the way.
Utah provides a model for a smooth transition to the new system. Instead of mandating a vote-at-home election in one fell swoop, Utah first gave its voters the right to request absentee ballots no matter what, as Maryland has done, and then it allowed counties to opt in to running their elections by mail once they were ready.
That proved highly effective. As Utah counties tried out vote-at-home, election administrators quickly found the system cheaper and easier to run, voters fell in love with the ease of mailing in their ballots, and turnout spiked dramatically. In fact, in 2016, the Utah counties that enacted vote-by-mail had a turnout rate more than five percentage points higher than those that didn’t.
Gradually, the rest of the state came to realize that vote-at-home was a superior system — but not because anyone made them. Rather, they were given the freedom to learn the benefits of vote-at-home on their own terms. This year, Utah will become the fourth state to run a statewide election entirely by vote-by-mail, after Oregon, Washington and Colorado. (Actually, Utah will tie with Hawaii, which will also use the system statewide for the first time in November.)
Maryland has already experimented with vote-at-home at the local level. Last fall, Rockville became the first city in the state to use the new method, conducting its municipal election by mail. The results speak for themselves. Turnout nearly doubled from its municipal election four years earlier. Roughly 58 percent of Rockville’s residents who voted by mail in that election had not participated in the city’s past two municipal elections. In other words, by switching to vote-at-home, Rockville successfully turned nonvoters into voters.
That has major implications for Maryland, where turnout is low. In 2018, for instance, only 54 percent of eligible voters showed up to the polls in the general election. In 2016, turnout was higher, as it usually is in a presidential year, with about 72 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. But that still means that 1 million eligible Maryland voters didn’t vote in the most recent presidential election. If the state doesn’t make dramatic changes to adjust to the coronavirus outbreak, that number could be even higher in 2020.
Fortunately, a proven solution is available. Maryland has enough time to roll out a vote-at-home system without running into major hiccups. It just needs to do what Utah did and start with an opt-in approach at the county level.
It’s the surest way for Maryland to save the 2020 election from a pandemic — and it might just make Maryland’s democracy work better long after the coronavirus is gone.