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Maryland senators recommend ways to avoid election problems

Two leading Maryland senators urged the state on Tuesday to prepare for a “hybrid mail-in preferred” November election in which voters can cast ballots by mail or in person with early voting, bidding to avoid the problems that arose in this month’s primary.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore city) and Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County) made a variety of recommendations to state election officials in a letter Tuesday for a smoother election during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the senators noted that the decision on how to conduct the election is up to Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland State Board of Elections, the senators called for four “critical” improvements.

“Public health experts across the country agree that it is impossible to determine the effect of COVID-19 come November,” they wrote. “Therefore, a ‘hybrid mail-in preferred’ system is the best approach to maximize voter participation while minimizing public health risks.”

The senators are calling for an expansion of the number of ballot drop-off boxes, additional in-person voting sites on Election Day and the use of early voting centers statewide. They also are calling for an enhanced communication plan to better coordinate state and local board engagement with the voting public, particularly within historically disenfranchised communities.

If it’s decided to hold a more traditional election with more in-person voting, the senators said the elections board should still plan for a drastic increase in the use of mail-in ballots. They urged the board to send a vote-by-mail ballot application to every voter, if it’s decided not to automatically send ballots to all voters. Those applications should be sent no later than Aug. 15, the senators wrote.

“Further, we expect historic levels of voter turnout in November, and the Board cannot repeat the same mistakes from the Primary,” the senators wrote.

Elections officials testified at a hearing last week that they learned from the unprecedented experience of conducting a mostly mail-in election during a pandemic. They also said they are working to address challenges with delivering ballots by mail in a timely manner.

Elections officials also said they recognize more in-person voting centers would be needed. Local jurisdictions were limited to four voting centers on the day of the primary — though two additional ones were opened in the city of Baltimore due to concerns about ballots not being sent to voters on time.

Voters stood in long lines in the June 2 primary, especially in Baltimore where a close Democratic mayoral primary had more than 20 candidates.

There was no in-person early voting in the June 2 primary.

Elections officials also cited the failure of a vendor to inform them that ballots had been mailed on time. Ferguson and Pinsky asked elections officials to update lawmakers on safeguards to ensure vendor-related issues from the primary do not happen again.

The primary also was marred by a printing error on the ballot for a local Baltimore race that prompted elections officials to remove election results from the state board’s website in the middle of the night with no explanation until morning.

The senators called on the board to provide a plan outlining how votes will be counted, reported and posted on Election Day and each subsequent day of counting outstanding mail-in votes.

“We stand ready to assist where we can,” the senators wrote. “Please know that we will continue to ask the tough questions where we must in the months ahead to ensure that this is a successful election for all Marylanders.”

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