Voters in Maryland’s June 2 primaries will be sent mail-in ballots, while some will have the option of casting a ballot on election day at one to four polling places per county, the Maryland State Board of Elections said in a Thursday afternoon meeting.
The decision is a departure from last week’s meeting, in which the board recommended there be no in-person voting in June because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
According to the plan developed Thursday, the state will send all eligible voters an absentee ballot and a return envelope with pre-paid postage. The in-person polling places will be only for people with disabilities or those who don't get their ballots in the mail.
“It’s not something I would’ve chosen in other circumstances,” Michael R. Cogan, SBE director, said during the meeting. “But business is not as usual… This is not something we freely choose to do, but something that has to be done.”
Both the 7th district special election to fill the remainder of the late Elijah Cummings’ term in Congress and presidential and local primaries were originally scheduled for April 28. Last month, Gov. Larry Hogan delayed the primaries until June 2, but left the date for the special election unchanged. However, voters in that election can only cast ballots by mail.
The Republican asked the Board of Elections to deliver him election logistics plans by Friday. Under state of emergency laws, he has the power to overturn any of their recommendations.
Implementing the largely mail-in ballot effort in June will require an extensive voter education campaign, which will include reaching out to voters who have difficulty receiving mail or who are unable to mark a ballot by hand. The SBE has an ongoing contract for public relations and digital media support and can expand this contract for this campaign.
The board also voted on Thursday to allow local boards of canvassers to begin opening and counting 7th district special election ballots on April 16 in order to determine the results in a reasonable time frame.
They also extended the voter registration deadline for the 7th congressional district special general election to April 24.
The special election ballots themselves have not yet appeared in the mailboxes of the more than 500,000 registered voters in the 7th congressional district, which represents more than half of Baltimore City, portions of Baltimore County and most of Howard County.
Clifford Mitchell, the director of the Environmental Health Bureau at the state Department of Health, said during the meeting that the department is committed to assisting the BOE with making in-person voting available but emphasized that doing so amid a pandemic will present several stark challenges.
“The question is, is it possible to design a polling station that does not involve face-to-face contact,” Mitchell said. “There’s no way to guarantee that you can have people in the same room and not transmit the virus.”
He outlined several recommendations to the BOE, including adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 election guidance, which encourages mail-in voting, off-peak voting and moving election polling locations away from long term care facilities and facilities housing vulnerable populations.
Additionally, poll workers must frequently wash their hands and there should be cleaning on a routine basis for frequently touching surfaces, cleaning and disinfection of voting associated equipment and incorporation of social distancing strategies, he said.