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March 28, 2020

Rep. David Trone: A Proposal to Expand Voting and Protect Public Health

Credit: Maryland Matters, Guest Commentary

Moving Maryland’s primary from April 28 to June 2 was the right thing to do. When Governor Larry Hogan made the announcement, Maryland joined six states in postponing primary elections because of the health risks associated with coronavirus, or COVID-19. The number has now more than doubled.

The state should use the additional time to ensure every Marylander has the right and ability to vote safely during this public health crisis. Governor Hogan can and should go even further by making the June 2 primaries mail-only, or mail-mostly, as the Board of Elections appears ready to recommend. Maryland would be leading the way and showing other states how to protect voters while encouraging even greater participation in our democratic process.

To encourage the widest possible participation, a ballot should be sent to every registered voter in the state. The requirement that voters must request an absentee ballot should be eliminated, and a postage-paid return envelope should be included with the ballot. Doing this eliminates the cost of voting at a time when every penny is important to families in our state.

This would be in the best interest of the health and safety of all Marylanders. Experts agree that the risk of contracting the coronavirus will still exist on June 2. In addition, it will be difficult if not impossible for local jurisdictions to hold an in-person election, even with the delay, as many who have served as election judges will not serve this year to avoid the risk of infection.

The same is true for voters. Exercising the right to vote should not require taking a serious and unnecessary health risk.

Some may be concerned with the cost of mailing a ballot and a postage-paid return envelope to everyone. On top of the costs of printing and postage, the state will need to hire additional people to process the ballots they receive (without subjecting them to exposure). However, the state will not be required to move voting machines and to staff all voting places, and Congress has just voted to appropriate $400 million to help states offset the cost of staging elections during the pandemic. Even if the net effect is a slightly higher total expense for the state, I believe the cost is worth it.

The Board of Elections appears poised to make the June 2nd election mail-only. They should carefully consider whether requiring vote-by-mail will disenfranchise any Marylander. We know from past elections that voting by mail can be an obstacle for some people.

To make it possible for everyone to vote, the state should consider having a limited number of in-person voting sites for two weeks prior to and including Election Day as we do for early voting. These should be placed in areas where mail-only voting is most likely to exclude large proportions of voters, and this should be done if – and only if – the Board can devise procedures that will protect election workers and voters from health risk.

Having party primary elections as mail-only or mail-mostly has the additional advantage of preparing us for November. Although everyone hopes the risks of the virus will have diminished sufficiently before the general election, we have no guarantee that this will be the case. If risks remain, the June 2 election can be a test run of how we could hold the general election despite health risks.

Governor Hogan and his counterparts in other states are smart to postpone the primary elections.  Acting with common purpose is something that has been sadly missing in our politics, and this might be one way to encourage it at a time when unity is more important than ever.