WASHINGTON – Voters in Maryland and Ohio are testing pandemic-era democracy this week, holding the first elections almost entirely by mail since the nation locked itself in and more than a dozen states stopped or postponed in-person voting the spread of COVID- 19.
In Maryland, where Tuesday’s vote is limited to a special election to fill the heavily Democratic seat of late MP Elijah E. Cummings in Baltimore, election officials said last week the process was going smoothly thanks to the long hours and heroic efforts of the staff ran members.
“We have had to think about every little detail how we can accomplish this, and the details are always changing,” said Donna Thewes, president of the Howard County electoral committee, one of Maryland’s three constituencies.
But the Ohio statewide area code on Tuesday – which was postponed at the last minute in March – was a scramble. Electoral boards struggled to keep up with the onslaught of absentee ballots, while slower-than-expected mail delivery threatened to turn the process upside down.
“It was kind of the opposite of slick,” said Mike Brickner, Ohio state director of All Voting is Local, an organization that aims to gain access to voters. “I’ve joked with people who in the last month have felt like the longest five years of my life.”
The two elections are a kind of test run for states across the country that have opted for mail-in primes or that ask voters to drop postal ballots instead of risking the chaotic scenes that erupted in Wisconsin on April 7th.
Badger State officials were advancing their regularly scheduled elections despite a statewide stay-at-home order. There were reports of lost or undelivered ballots, and some poll workers stayed away, resulting in consolidated polling stations with long lines. At least 19 people reported COVID-19 infections picked up in the elections.
As of last Friday, 16 states and one territory had either postponed their presidential primaries or switched to postal votes with extended deadlines. Many of these moves have received bipartisan support despite fierce opposition from President Donald Trump and some Republicans warning against election fraud.
Election officials said they hope any problems that arise now will help them prepare for November, when an unprecedented number of postal votes could be cast in the presidential election.
But while some states collect high percentages of absentee ballot papers each cycle and have had years to perfect their systems, Maryland and Ohio have never done so.
They only had a few weeks to print out and mail hundreds of thousands of ballot papers in time for voters to postmarked back by election day on Tuesday.
They also had to work out plans that would allow voters who could not vote by post to cast their ballots in person.
In Maryland, former Democratic MP Kweisi Mfume and Republican Kimberly Klacik are competing for the vacant 7th District seat created by Cumming’s death in October.
The turnout is unlikely to be high and the result is unlikely to be challenged given the district’s strong democratic orientation. For example, Cummings won 76% of the vote in 2018.
Even so, the election is being watched closely across the state to see what to expect in the June 2 nationwide primaries, which will also be held almost entirely by mail. The state sent ballot papers to all “active voters,” including voters who have cast their votes in any of the last three federal elections or who have been mailed to the addresses on their registration. The return postage for the ballot has been paid.
Tens of thousands of ballot papers had been counted by the end of last week. Since no more than 10 polling officers were allowed in the same room, the process was broadcast live over the Internet to the poll workers who worked from home. A few times the broadcast was interrupted due to technical problems and all counts had to be stopped until service could be restored, said Bruce Robinson, president of the Baltimore County Electoral Committee.
Robinson said the largest test of the system will take place on election day, the deadline for postmarking or putting ballots in one of three collection boxes the state had specially made, with a design similar to the drop-off boxes in parking lots for donated clothing.
The boxes are designed to make it easier for people to cast their ballots without exposing themselves to the virus, but limiting the number of people who can safely wait in queues means polling stations could quickly become overwhelmed.
“The biggest fear is that someone will become infected when they vote,” said Robinson. “Voting is really important, but it’s not something we would consider ‘I should be ready to die to vote’ in 2020.”
Mfume campaign spokesman Anthony McCarthy said the process has so far been transparent.
“They are doing everything they can to make sure everyone’s votes are counted,” he said. “Everyone was very aware that they had to do it right.”
Klacik’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In Ohio, however, the process was more confusing.
State officials there postponed the primaries on March 17th in the early hours of the morning for fear of the coronavirus pandemic. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, both Republicans, had originally postponed the elections to June 2, but the GOP-controlled General Assembly stepped in, having the primaries voted in full by mail and setting election day to Tuesday .
The ballot papers must be stamped by Monday or submitted to the district election committees by Tuesday 7:30 p.m.
The potentially most divisive race – the Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – has been settled, with Sanders saying goodbye on April 8 and later supporting Biden.
Unlike other states that require voters to indicate illness, travel, or some other justification for voting by mail, Ohio has allowed voters to do so for years without a reason. Even so, election officials had to quickly change course to hold the primaries entirely by mail.
The delayed election has also resulted in continued stress for the few controversial congressional primaries.
In the 1st District near Cincinnati, Democrats Nikki Foster and Kate Schroder are fighting for the nomination to challenge Republican MP Steve Chabot. Both had prepared for a duel on March 17th.
“Who would have thought there was overtime?” Schroder said CQ Roll Call.
Voting by post in most cases requires three steps, with voters requesting the voting slip by post, receiving it by post and sending it back by post.
But the mail was slow. Some voters complained last week that they still hadn’t received their ballot papers and mail that typically gets delivered in one to three days instead of seven to nine days.
Last week, LaRose wrote to the state’s congressional delegation asking them to urge the postal service to take steps to expedite the process.
The electoral board will count the ballots on Tuesday but will not certify the results until three weeks later to ensure that late ballots are counted.
Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said the transition has not been easy.
“It’s really a mess,” she said. “Trying to post this vote is very worrying.”
The Secretary of State has teamed up with groups across Ohio to get ballots out there. Turcer said the Kroger grocery store gave them out, and she even heard from Ohioans who put the applications in Little Free Libraries.
Despite years of flawless postal voting in the state, Turcer said that by this year, “the vast majority of Ohioans have cast their votes in person on election day.”
It seems that the transition will lead to a lower turnout.
By April 21, nearly 1.67 million Ohioans had requested a postal vote for the area code, with 975,158 already voting. The previous low-water mark was in 2012 when the Ohioans cast 1.9 million primary votes. In 2016, 3.3 million Ohioans voted in the 2016 presidential primary.
Turcer said it was difficult to say how much of the low turnout was due to the presidential candidacy agreement and how much was due to the rapid change in electorate.
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There were other hiccups. A contractor mailed 18 postal ballot papers with self-addressed envelopes addressed to a utility company in West Virginia. A district electoral committee ran out of envelopes.
Despite the scramble, election officials say they are using the area code to prepare for an all-postal vote in November.
“The coronavirus won’t just go away,” said Turcer. “We have to plan to hold the elections in a way that protects the people, and the best way to protect the people is to have a robust voting system by email.”
She said she would also like the idea of multiple places where people could vote in person and socially distant for days before election day.
Jon Keeling, a spokesman for LaRose, said the office is preparing for this opportunity.
“While we hope we can have a normal personal choice, we will definitely be prepared and we started planning for any eventuality as early as November,” he said.