Time is running out as Maryland heads toward the general election in November with no clear idea of how balloting will be done.
Gov. Larry Hogan has ordered the state Board of Elections and the county boards to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter, but to also open early voting centers and then open every precinct polling place on Nov. 3.
That is a recipe for disaster, and election officials across the state have practically been begging the state board and Hogan to come to agreement on a new plan.
The lack of election judges is the first crisis. According to news reports, David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, warned the election board this week that more than 1,000 additional Maryland poll workers have dropped out over the past week, leaving the state with little more than 60 percent of what it would need to staff Hogan’s plan.
Local election administrators are planning for a “high probability the public health crisis will worsen in September and October, and election judges will begin to quit en masse,” Garreis said. “Once the majority of the election judges quit, there is not going to be a backup.”
Beyond that problem, state laws passed back when no one anticipated our current pandemic throws one more wrench into the creaking election machinery: Absentee ballots cannot be counted until two days after the election.
Think about that. We are encouraging most people to vote by mail to avoid crowds in the polling places during the pandemic. But even if the whole process runs smoothly, we might not know who won the election for days or weeks.
With President Trump already casting doubt on the whole process, proclaiming the election will be rigged, any significant delay is going to weaken Americans’ faith in the outcome.
By sending an application for an absentee ballot to every registered voter, we are guaranteeing extra work for election board staff. Early voting can be a logistical challenge as well. How many centers? Who will staff them?
Finally, even finding enough polling places will be a nightmare. Churches and other privately owned buildings normally used as polling places are refusing to allow it, because of the danger posed by the virus.
Stuart Harvey, Frederick County’s Election Director, told his board that fewer polling places should be used.
In an email to the board, Harvey wrote: “We are encouraging vote-by-mail for voters, at the same time we’re being asked to open the polling places on Nov. 3 and also conduct eight days of early voting. That puts a huge strain on a very small staff.”
Hogan has criticized the state board because the members could not agree on whether the November election should be run like the June primary, which was largely conducted by mail, or if more polling places should open.
That is a little unfair. State law requires that four of the five board members must agree on a plan, and the board was split on party lines
Three Republicans favored using a limited number of in-person voting centers and sending absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. The two Democrats also wanted limited in-person voting but preferred mailing ballots to every registered voter.
Neither side supported opening all of the state’s precincts. However, the split vote did not count as an endorsement of any plan, leaving Hogan to go his own way.
Hogan needs to reconsider while there is still time to come up with a better solution. We would still prefer to send ballots to every registered voter and have minimal in-person voting. But at a minimum, the governor needs to have the absentee ballots counted as they arrive at the election boards, so that we can announce almost complete returns on Nov. 3. And we have to open a smaller number of polling places.
Maintaining public confidence in this election is going to be hard enough, with the president constantly attacking the validity. We cannot give him more ammunition to damage it by following a deeply flawed plan.