By Charly Carter & Laura Williamson
After 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are longing for a return to familiar practices, like the shared sense of purpose and belonging that comes from voting with our neighbors. Yet, every aspect of our lives has changed in response to this virus—including how we vote. Citing public safety and a shortage of election judges, Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan issued an executive order on March 17th calling for a vote-by-mail-only special election for the state’s 7th Congressional District in April, and pushed the primary election back to June 2nd. Both elections appropriately maintained in-person voting options—a critical piece of conducting safe, accessible elections this year—but both relied far more heavily than ever before on voting by mail. Governor Hogan has since reversed the executive order and, in doing so, ignored national health officials’ warnings about a second wave of the disease and its implications for the voting public. By learning from the successes and failures of voting by mail in Maryland’s special election and primary, other states can protect our democracy by ensuring safe and equitable elections in November.
Maryland overall, and Baltimore City in particular, achieved impressive turnout, considering the executive order was implemented just weeks into the pandemic. During the 2016 presidential primary election, 4.2 percent of Maryland voters voted absentee. This year, 97 percent of Maryland primary voters voted absentee. The lesson is that states can run elections mostly by mail and, if the proper steps are taken, achieve strong turnout. Overall, 41.8 percent of Marylanders turned out to vote for the June 2nd primary, and in predominantly Black Baltimore City, turnout was even higher, at 48 percent—a 3 percent increase from the 2016 primary. This historic turnout is thanks, at least in part, to the fact that the Maryland Board of Elections mailed all active voters a ballot. And these ballots were mailed with return postage prepaid, a critical step for ensuring voters don’t face a modern-day poll tax.
In this Tuesday, April 28, 2020, file photo, a motorist drops off a mail-in ballot outside of a voting center during the 7th Congressional District special election, in Windsor Mill, Md. Maryland’s attorney general warned Friday, July 10, 2020, of “devastating consequences” if all eligible voters are not directly sent ballots to mail in for November’s election due to safety concerns about the coronavirus, instead of Gov. Larry Hogan’s directive to mail applications for voters to request absentee ballots if they want to vote by mail. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
To be sure, there were significant problems with Maryland’s all-mail special election and the subsequent presidential primary. Some voters faced issues during both the April 28th special election and the June 2nd primary. Roughly 10 percent of ballots were not delivered to Baltimore City voters during the special election, and more than a million registered voters in Baltimore City and Montgomery County received their ballots late, or didn’t receive them at all. Further, some voters’ ballots and instructions contained erroneous information. Ballots for the June 2nd primary, for example, instructed voters to return the ballot by April 28th, adding to voters’ confusion and mistrust of the process.
We also know from both elections that states will need better systems for updating voters’ addresses—especially as COVID-19 has created financial crises and housing insecurity for many—and for tracking voters’ ballots. But scaling up vote-by-mail systems so they work for more communities simply takes time and resources. While all states have more time to prepare for the November general election than they’ve had for the primaries, few have the resources they need to adequately do so. Congress should immediately appropriate the $3.6 billion advocates are calling for—and the House already passed in the HEROES Act—so that states and localities can strengthen their election systems in the face of COVID-19.
Maryland also illustrates the critical need for resources devoted to voter education, especially in an election year as unique as 2020. In a healthy democracy, election administrators and officials are charged to ensure that the public is informed about voting changes, deadlines for mail and in-person voting, and the locations of open, operational, and fully staffed polling locations. This, too, will take time. States and localities must engage in significant voter education efforts, beginning now and ramping up through Election Day in November. They should dedicate extra funds to educate voters in the Black and brown communities that are often ignored by campaigns, many of whom have never voted by mail, and who face higher barriers to voting by mail.
States must now take swift action to design racially equitable voting systems—including dramatically scaling up vote by mail, while also maintaining accessible in-person voting—so communities are not disenfranchised this fall. As Wisconsin and Georgia showed us, the denial of our fundamental right to vote will fall most heavily on working-class communities, particularly those of Black and brown voters who already face more obstacles to the ballot box. And let’s not forget, this is all amidst a global pandemic that is disproportionately infecting and killing Black and brown people, and that has already claimed more 3,500 lives in Maryland and more than 155,000 across the country.
Governors cannot wait until the fall to dramatically expand vote by mail; they must heed the warnings of public health experts and provide funding needed to mail ballots to every registered voter. Nor can governors rely exclusively on voting by mail; voters need multiple safe options to cast their ballot, including in-person voting. That will require state and local Boards of Elections to start now, by assessing their data and capacity to process mailed ballots, and by creating plans for safe, accessible in-person voting. And it will require Congress to act swiftly to send at least $3.6 billion in election funding to states and localities. Finally, leaders must begin to educate voters about their options to vote safety and efficiently this year. Time is running short, and no less than our democracy hangs in the balance.
Charly Carter is the founder of Step up Maryland. Laura Williamson is a senior policy analyst at Demos.