When your state electorate increases its number of mail-in ballots cast by something like 1556% cycle-over-cycle, you might run into some problems. Take it from Maryland, where nearly 1.5 million voters cast their ballots by mail in this year’s presidential primary, compared with just over 80,000 combined votes by absentee/provisional ballot in the 2016 primary. Maryland is not Oregon or Washington, states experienced in administering largely vote-by-mail elections, in which mailed ballots account for some 97% of those cast. Pre-Covid Maryland required no excuse from voters who wished to vote by mail, but the practice was rare. Historically, in-person voting accounts for 90% of Maryland’s ballots cast. The 2016 general election set the previous record for “ballots sent” to requesting voters: Marylanders requested approximately 226,000 ballots and returned roughly 177,000. By contrast, the State mailed nearly 3.6 million ballots for the June 2nd primary, and voters returned almost 1.5 million of them.
Since we mentioned June 2nd—that sounds a bit late for a Maryland primary, doesn’t it? Unlike Wisconsin, Maryland delayed its primary elections in light of Covid. On March 5th, Governor Hogan declared a State of Emergency, and thereby transferred to himself, as governor, the authority to make changes to the election calendar and/or voting procedures. By proclamation on March 17, six weeks before the election, Governor Hogan delayed the primaries until June 2nd. Only one election remained scheduled for April 28th: the special general election for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District to fill the late Representative Cummings’s former seat—an election the governor deemed essential. However, it would be modified, converted into the State’s first vote-by-mail election. Through another proclamation on April 10th, Governor Hogan ordered the State Board of Elections to provide in-person voting for the special general election unless it could essentially guarantee the election would proceed legally and safely. In the end, local boards provided three in-person voting centers.
Election officials ultimately mailed roughly 484,000 ballots to the 7th District for the special election—more than the previous statewide record of 226,000, referenced above. Despite the effort for an unprecedented ask, which included $1.1 million for a voter education campaign, logistical problems plagued the election. Ballots needed to be postmarked by April 28th, but a State Board audit revealed that some 20,000 of the over 230,000 ballots election officials sent to Baltimore City voters—nearly one in ten—weren’t delivered to the voters before Election Day. Likewise, 4,355 Baltimore County ballots and 3,886 Howard County ballots were undeliverable or not delivered. Some of these likely account for the 4,151 vote-by-mail ballots rejected for tardiness. Unfortunately, the special election augured the challenges that bedeviled the June 2nd primaries.
Using the same vendor it had contracted with for the special election, SeaChange, the State planned to mail the 3.6 million June 2nd primary ballots over a period of a twelve days, beginning on April 27th and culminating with 336,00 Baltimore City ballots on May 8th. On May 15th, however, election officials learned that the Baltimore City ballots were a week behind schedule. Likewise, in Montgomery County, 670,000 ballots were late. State officials understandably spooked, fearing a repeat of the special election. To recap, approximately one million of the roughly 3.6 million ballots were late. Those ballots did eventually make it into the mailbox, with 95% of the 3.6 million arriving on or before May 30th. The State Board blamed SeaChange for the error and for failing to indicate to officials that ballots were delayed, among other issues. SeaChange, in turn, blamed the State for failing to deliver voter information files that contained voter addresses.
Whatever the case, Maryland’s primary at the very least illustrates how Covid turns election administration upside down, in Maryland’s case, flipping in-person and mail-in vote counts. The primary was such a logistical nightmare—beyond mailing issues and among others, there were hours-long waits—that on July 8th, Governor Hogan recommended a “normal” general election, directing election officials to open polling precincts and mail vote-by-mail applications, rather than ballots, to all eligible voters. The State Board estimated the additional cost of running such an election with 78 early voting locations and 1,600 neighborhood precincts at $20.6 million, with mailing costs (applications, ballots, and prepaid postage) estimated at $12.9 million, voter education at $4.0 million, and Covid health supplies at roughly $1.5 million. Beyond these fiscal costs, Maryland faced the threatof a poll worker boycott; by the time Governor Hogan issued his August 10th Proclamation, 40% of poll worker jobs were vacant.
In that August 10th proclamation, Hogan authorized election officials to use 360 voting centers in lieu of the neighborhood precincts despite the specter of a June 2 repeat. As of October 13th, voters have requested nearly 1.5 million mail-in ballots—not the volume of the primary, but far beyond the volume to which the State is accustomed. Election officials scheduled mail-in ballot printing to begin September 3rd and to finish before September wrapped up. Then, on September 11th, SeaChange cut ties with the State, citing the State’s decision to contract with other vendors to assist with the work. With just under two months until the general election, the State added another challenge to its plate: administering an election with new & unfamiliar partners. In any other year, this might have been a shocking development, but it’s 2020—did we expect anything less?