Current Maryland voting plan ‘dangerous mistake’; coalition calls for vote by mail

A coalition of health experts and civic organizations is calling on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to pivot from an in-person election to a vote-by-mail process for the general election in November.

Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the coalition members of “Everyone Votes Maryland” feel the coronavirus pandemic poses serious obstacles for the upcoming election.

“Our coalition is concerned that the current election path is overly burdensome to voters struggling in the midst of this health crisis,” Antoine said.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in-person voting poses risks from the coronavirus to voters and poll workers alike.

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He pointed out that “hospitalizations are very clearly on the rise,” and he said that there is a lot of concern that trend could continue.

Sharfstein, who served as the director of the Maryland Department of Health under former Gov. Martin O’Malley, pointed to the high rate of spread that occurs when people are in enclosed spaces and can’t practice social distancing.

He quoted a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document on voting, which pointed out risks to people grouped in crowded spaces and who may need to touch shared surfaces.

“The virus is hoping that a lot of people show up to vote,” said Sharfstein, who added, “We can beat the virus the more people who vote” by mail.

Dr. Mike Latner, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, echoed Sharfstein. Latner said that on Election Day, “the greatest danger is waiting in line in a polling station to vote.”

But concerns about the risk of contracting the coronavirus isn’t limited to voters.

David Garreis, with the Maryland Association of Election Officials, said getting people to serve as election judges is always challenging. And, with the COVID-19 crisis, “the local boards are experiencing unprecedented issues recruiting election judges” for Nov. 3.

Garreis said, as of Wednesday morning, there were 12,993 vacant positions for election judges. That leaves nearly one third of the needed posts vacant.

“Without election judges, it will be impossible for the local boards to open every polling place,” Garreis said.

There are also issues with ensuring that all the polling places typically used by local elections boards will be available. As of Wednesday, there were 123 “dropouts” — polling sites that pulled out of allowing their sites to be used on Election Day. That’s out of 1,650 polling places statewide, according to Garreis.

“A lot of polling places had been placed in senior centers, and with COVID-19, they’re not letting us come back to those at all,” Garreis said. “And a lot of polling places don’t want to let us in unless we’re going to agree to sanitize the site after Election Day, which is a cost factor to a lot of local boards,” Garreis said.

Rebecca Wilson, a chief election judge in Prince George’s County who has worked every election since 2004, said she considered working on Election Day her patriotic duty.

But, as a senior citizen with an underlying health condition, Wilson said, “I will not volunteer for an unnecessary suicide mission.”

On July 8, Hogan directed the Maryland State Board of Elections to hold an in-person election, with all polling places open for access to voters. He also called on the board to plan for early voting and to send absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters.

Hogan cited the problems in the June 2 primary — in which many voters either didn’t get their ballots, were sent the wrong ballots or got ballots late — in calling for having polls open for in-person voting.

The governor said the plan would maximize participation, while minimizing confusion and risk.

But members of the “Everyone Votes Maryland” coalition disagreed.

“In general, I respect the way that Governor Hogan has handled the pandemic, but I feel that holding an in-person election this fall would be a dangerous mistake,” Wilson said.

Rev. Kobi Little, president of the NAACP Baltimore branch, said, “The most efficient, and the safest and the most widely enfranchising, manner in which we can conduct an election is to mail every voter a ballot,” and to supplement that with early voting centers, limited voting centers on Election Day and mail drop boxes.

Little said that he is optimistic for a shift. He said that Hogan’s office “signaled that they’re willing to meet” with representatives from the Maryland Association of Election Officials.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci confirmed Wednesday that the governor’s office would be meeting with representatives from the Maryland Association of Election Officials next week.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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