Rebecca Wilson has been an election judge since 2004 -– but this November, you won’t find her assisting voters at the polls.
“I consider serving in the polling place to be my patriotic duty, and I love doing it, but I will not volunteer for an unnecessary suicide mission,” Prince George's County’s chief election judge said.
Earlier this month, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered a regular, in-person November election with every precinct open, despite pandemic-related concerns from election and health officials and June guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said local officials throughout the country should choose alternatives to casting ballots in person in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
That guidance is common sense, Wilson said at a news conference to promote a pivot to mail-in voting organized by Common Cause Wednesday morning.
“I'm a senior with underlying health conditions,” Wilson said. “So are most of the crew I've served with all these years.”
It’s simply too dangerous for her and other judges – who are disproportionately seniors – to risk contracting COVID-19 during the 13 or so hours they spend at polling places every election day, she said.
David Garreis of the Maryland Association of Election Officials said Wilson’s decision is not uncommon – more and more judges are giving up their Election Day jobs as November approaches.
“It's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to make up for the election shortfall,” he said. “Unofficially, the local boards are currently planning to consolidate around 247 polling places statewide. This number will likely increase unless we have enough election judges to staff the polling places.”
This leads Garreis to another concern: voter confusion. If some precincts but not others close, voters may go to the wrong location.
“We may have historic turnout this election and we need to work together now to avoid the worst outcome, voter confusion, long lines during a pandemic and voter distrust of the election process,” Garreis said.
Health experts say the coronavirus will still pose a threat come November: for the fourth week in a row, Maryland’s COVID-19 cases are ticking upward.
“Imagine waking up feeling sick that day and having to decide between voting and, you know, protecting people who might be exposed,” said Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Voting in person poses the risk of infection at every stage, he said, such as transportation to the voting location, waiting in line, touching shared services which can have droplets of the coronavirus and speaking with masked poll workers if an indoor location has poor ventilation.
Another compounding layer to both the election and the pandemic is the issue of equity, said Dr. Mike Latner, a Kendall Voting Rights fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Black Marylanders disproportionally contract and die from COVID-19. There’s an overlap between groups more vulnerable to COVID-19 and groups who encounter difficulty when casting a ballot, Latner said.
“The longest lines that we find in every election, whether it's a primary election or a general election, are concentrated in densely populated urban areas, are concentrated among voters of color, voters with disabilities,” he said.
In his executive order, Hogan required the State Board of Elections to mail each registered voter an application for an absentee ballot. Reverend Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore NAACP, said the applications aren’t enough.
“The most efficient, the safest and the most widely enfranchising manner in which we can conduct an election is to mail every voter a ballot and to supplement that process with limited voting centers and mail drop boxes for early voting and for Election Day voting,” he said.
After a mostly mail-in June primary characterized by ballots that arrived late and long in-person lines at limited polling centers, Hogan has argued that a normal election would ward off those problems. His office did not return a request for comment.
“We’re very frustrated with the way the election was handled in the primary by the State Board of Elections and the city board of elections,” Hogan said on WBAL’s C4 Show program earlier this month. “Mistakes were definitely made, and it was unacceptable and inexcusable that they screwed up so much with respect to getting the ballots out on time and getting them out to everybody.”
Little and the other activists said the higher rates of turnout during mail-in elections coupled with the reduced risk of spreading the virus if more people stay home carries far more weight.
“The more an individual interacts with others, the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread,” Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins said. “So what does this mean? There is a way to reduce the risk, which is to maximize the number of mail-in ballots.”