We submitted the following comments to the Maryland State Board of Elections in advance of their meeting on April 2, 2020.
April 1, 2020
Members, Maryland State Board of Elections
151 West Street, Suite 200
Annapolis, MD 21401
cc: Linda H. Lamone, State Administrator
Dear Chairman and Members of the Board:
In times of crisis it is critical that we preserve our democracy and maintain faith in our government and institutions. We appreciate the difficult decisions you are faced with to ensure the security of our electoral systems and provide safe access to every eligible voter during this public health emergency.
Safeguarding democracy is an essential service, and every effort must be made to conduct our elections in a manner which will afford every eligible voter an opportunity to cast a ballot and provide election workers the protections they require to carry out this essential duty. In order to afford every eligible voter an opportunity to participate and to ensure the safety of election workers, we have several recommendations for you to consider.
7th Congressional District Special General Election
We applaud the Board for moving to vote-by-mail for the Special General Election to protect the health of the public and elections workers but are concerned about the decision to allow for no in-person voting. This decision has significant ramifications for Maryland voters residing in the 7th Congressional District. We urge you to consider our additional recommendations to ensure all voters, including those who cannot vote by mail, have access to voting.
- Limited in-person voting: We ask that the local board of election offices in Baltimore City, Howard County, and Baltimore County be open on April 28th (Election Day) from 7am-8pm. Access should be limited to those voters needing to use ballot marking devices, seeking to vote in-person because they did not receive an absentee ballot, seeking to register and vote, and others in need of assistance. The “healthy polling places” tips included in the primary election section below can be applied in this situation in addition to guidance provided by health experts. We also remain committed to helping recruit staff for these locations if needed.
- Drop off locations: We urge the Board to consider making secure drop boxes available at each of the local board of election offices from at least April 21st through Election Day because it is a proven effective way to increase participation and may build faith in the process. Additional drop boxes being made available at secure locations throughout the District is also encouraged, including posting their locations at grocery stores and pharmacies.
- Canvass: Every effort should be made to protect the identity of voters during the video observation of the canvass.
We strongly support the Board’s decision to conduct this election by mail-in ballot, but we remain concerned about the impact on, and disenfranchisement of voters who are not able to vote-by-mail. We ask that you consider implementing the following recommendations:
- In-person voting: Washington DC has a plan to have limited vote centers, and we suggest Maryland does the same. We urge the Board to move forward with making limited vote centers available throughout the state for voters who cannot vote by mail. The state should limit access to those seeking to use ballot marking devices, those experiencing issues with ballots (never received, incorrect ballot received, etc.), those wanting to register and vote, and those in need of assistance, including language assistance which is required by law in Montgomery County. Vote centers should be available throughout the early voting period and on Election Day, helping to spread the limited number of voters needing to vote in-person throughout several days. A sufficient number of vote centers should also be made available – especially in Baltimore City where critical elections will be taking place.
- Healthy polling places: We should do everything we can to protect election workers and those entering vote centers. The Brennan Center’s memorandum on “How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus,” provides guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on steps that can be taken to prevent transmission of the virus, in compliance with the guidance issued by government health agencies. We believe you should immediately create a task force to review Maryland election procedures in light of the CDC recommendations and develop a protocol for voting at Vote Centers that minimizes health threats to both the election workers and voters.
- Voter Center Staff: We are committed to helping recruit poll workers for these voter centers. To help with recruitment, we ask that the Board consider a temporary increase in the hourly pay rate for poll workers and any other actions necessary to minimize risk and exposure in including availability of testing.
- Electioneering: Ask the Governor to forbid electioneering at Vote Centers as part of his Stay in Place Executive Order.
- Drop off locations: We urge the Board to consider making secure drop boxes available at each of the local board of election offices and early vote locations throughout the state from at least May 21st through Election Day.
- Pre-mailer: Prior to mailing ballots, we urge the Board to provide voters with advance notice by direct mail explaining that election will be conducted by mail. These mailers should include short statement in Spanish and additional languages instructing voters on where to access additional information in their language. You might consider using Every Door Direct Mail. That would not depend on having voting addresses, and would get the message out broadly. This mailing should include:
- Information on who will receive a ballot and how to check to see if they are registered and whether their registration address and party affiliation are correct.
- How to register or update their registration if necessary.
- How to have their ballot sent to a different address if necessary.
- Online forms: We urge you to consider looking at ways to make the online voter registration and absentee ballot application process more accessible for voters, and those without State identification. Since many voters don’t have access to printing, we suggest you also allow voters to request a voter registration or absentee ballot application form be mailed to them to fill out, sign and return.
- Curing Process: With this being the first time many voters will vote by absentee ballot, we expect that many may forget to sign and date their ballot. We urge the Board to develop a process for curing ballots, contacting voters to make them aware of missing signatures and providing them with an opportunity to sign before the deadline.
- Canvass: With the canvass being live streamed for public observation, we urge the Board to take steps to protect the secrecy of every single ballot, including adding an inner sleeve to return envelopes in order to protect identifying information.
It is crucial that ample funding is made available for the public outreach which will be necessary to inform Marylanders of the changes to the upcoming elections.
- Educate the public about the process through multiple media outlets such as TV, radio, online, texts and phone alerts and in public places including grocery stores and pharmacies. This information should also be made available in multiple languages.
- Create a Task Force made of community-based groups that have expertise in reaching a wide range of potential voters to collaborate on an outreach strategy.
- We urge the Board to make outreach to Colleges and Universities a priority, helping to make sure that displaced students are aware of election changes and that these institutions are communicating these changes to students by email and social media.
- There are a number of incarcerated individuals throughout the state who are eligible to vote. We urge the Board to consider outreach to correctional facilities, sending both voter registration forms and absentee ballot applications to these facilities for individuals who want to vote. We also suggest including envelopes with prepaid postage for easy return. Additionally, absentee ballots sent to eligible voters should also include prepaid postage.
Safeguarding our elections is essential to our democracy. Thank you for your leadership during this time and for doing all you can to ensure every eligible Marylander can exercise their right to vote.
Joanne Antoine, Executive Director, Common Cause Maryland
Lois Hybl & Richard Willson, Co-Presidents, League of Women Voters of Maryland
Emily Scarr, Director, Maryland PIRG
Dana Vickers Shelley, Executive Director, ACLU of Maryland
Ben Jackson, Staff Attorney, Disability Rights Maryland