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Maryland ranks second in election integrity according to a report released recently by the Democracy Initiative Education Fund, a coalition of 75 civil rights, environmental and civic organizations dedicated to building democracy. The score card reflects all aspects of the voting process, from registering to vote and casting a ballot, to confidence that the vote would be counted accurately and safely.
This doesn’t surprise Barbara Sanders from Silver Spring, who after a career as a reference librarian for the United States Information Agency, tasked with explaining American life abroad, has directed her energy to the Montgomery County non-partisan League of Women Voters. There she has headed efforts to produce the group’s popular Election Voters’ Guide and chaired the Making Democracy Work Committee.
“I don’t like partisan politics,” she said. “I like the process side of it better and ensuring that people have the information that they need, and know why it’s important to vote.”
For over 20 years or 10 voting cycles, as she likes to frame it, during primary, general, and special elections, she has gone to polling places as a volunteer contractor for the Montgomery County Board of Elections. She started in 2002 with a two-page evaluation form, which has grown to eight pages today. Observes like her fan out to 1,500 polling places and early voting centers across Maryland, taking part in the Polling Place Evaluation Program, mandated by state government since 2000.
Over four years, each local board must have evaluated all of their Election Day polling places. For each primary/general election cycle, the local board must evaluate 50% of their polling places. The recommendation is to evaluate 25% of their polling places in a primary election and a different 25% in a general election.
Sanders attends regular training sessions, including one on the current election, and often one for judges, so she knows their jobs too. On this Election Day she will make stops at six polling places, spending about an hour at each to complete the extensive survey.
Systematic, standardized review
Sanders starts outside, checking that the polling place is accessible and that the “No Electioneering” zone is clearly marked with partisan campaigners well outside it. Once inside she checks in with the election judge and methodically fills out the form.
“We have general questions for the chief judge about how things are going, and letting them know if there are any discrepancies on the outside,” she said. After that she follows a voter, staying clear not to interfere with what’s happening.
“It’s any number of very detailed processes, [some] that are totally not seen by voters as they walk through a polling place,” Sanders said. You might not notice the tamper proof tape on voting machines assuring that the equipment is secure, she said, or that the Zero Reports had been posted, showing the count as zero at the beginning when the scanner was turned on.
Sanders says poll workers and the public welcome this oversight. “The judges are generally very receptive, especially if they’ve had any problems. They see us as a resource for working something out,” she said.
So does the State Board of Elections, which oversees federal, state and county elections, and is responsible for monitoring compliance with laws for access, election systems and data, assuring Maryland’s 4 million voters that that the process is secure.
“We’re constantly looking at ways to make sure that we’re implementing it in accordance with federal guidelines, as well as making sure that all of the procedures are appropriate and are maintaining the security and integrity that we want in the system,” said State Board of Elections Deputy Administrator, Nikki Charlson. The Polling Place Evaluation Program evaluations are among the 15 criteria in the comprehensive audit. “The local election officials review them and send them to us and we review them and look for areas of concern,” she said.
Maryland legislature expands access
In 2021, 19 states passed 34 laws to restrict voting rights, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Charlson says, as those restrictive policies have been enacted, Maryland has improved access. “The legislature is responsible for automatic voter registration, [and] for same day registration. They passed bills that expanded voting in correctional facilities for eligible individuals,” she said.
The state also has extended early voting, allows voters to join a permanent absentee ballot/mail-in ballot list, and offers prepaid postage when they do.
Acknowledging that Maryland is not a battleground state, Charlson says each election has its challenges.
“I think that the mechanics of the election always need to be fine-tuned, but they work,” she said. “I don’t think there is any process in [the] elections that is not at least double or tripled or quadruple checked. And we do that because we want to make sure that it’s right, and voters can trust not just the result, but the process.”
Sanders adds that with each polling place evaluation, she comes away with the same feeling, that the exercise in democracy matters.
“I think it is a way of confirming the dedication, knowledge and intention of everyone within the electoral cycle to make sure that we have free and fair elections,” Sanders said. “And, it makes me confident and allows me to be reassured that our our state is running our elections in a way that we should, and are opening it to everyone that is eligible to vote.”