PROTECTING THE VOTE: 2022 Advocacy Priorities
“Protecting the vote” is no longer simply a basic principle of the League of Women Voters — these days it’s an urgent mission. Nationwide, we’re witnessing attempts both subtle and blatant to make access to the ballot more difficult, especially for certain populations. Although voters in Maryland encounter fewer barriers than in many other states, there is still room for improvement.
Compared with last year, fewer election-related bills are expected to be introduced during the upcoming session. The Maryland General Assembly will be focusing much of its attention on legislative redistricting instead, plus they are reluctant to change election procedures during an election year. A few emergency bills will propose changes to how the 2022 elections are conducted. Most bills, though, wouldn’t take effect until 2023 at the earliest.
A number of important issues were left partially or completely unresolved at the end of the last session. The League will continue to advocate for improvements in these areas:
* ALLOWING PROCESSING OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS BEFORE ELECTION DAY. LWVMD supports the increased use of mail-in ballots, which includes those returned in official drop boxes as well as those sent via the post office. No one can predict how many people will choose to vote by mail in 2022, however it’s likely to be far more than in pre-pandemic times. Thanks to legislation passed in 2021 (https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2021RS/Chapters_noln/CH_514_hb1048e.pdf), before the June 2022 Primary Election all registered voters will be sent an application for a mail-in ballot, with the option of receiving one automatically in the future (also referred to as the permanent absentee ballot list). The League strongly supported this legislation last year. You can read our testimony here: https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/cmte_testimony/2021/wam/1NjAPvBlDeBLaAvrV2NvZP72POfhcCjUf.pdf .
The canvass of mail-in ballots entails several time-consuming preliminary steps: logging the arrival time of the ballot; verifying that no other ballots have been received from that voter; and examining the envelope for a missing signature, and if so, contacting the voter to “cure” the problem by providing a signature before the statutory deadline. Once this pre-processing is completed, the accepted ballots are opened, duplicated if necessary to ensure readability, tabulated by high-speed scanners, and stored securely until it’s time to release the results.
Under current law, local Boards of Elections cannot begin even the preliminary processing until the Thursday after Election Day. Due to the vast increase in mail-in voting in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, ballot processing was permitted to start early that year under a temporary emergency order. Without this head start, it would have been very difficult for some local Boards of Elections to finish counting the votes in time. The effort required hiring more canvassers and allocating more space, but most local Boards welcomed the extra time.
Several bills were introduced in 2021 to make starting early a permanent option for the local Boards of Elections. We favor this policy. Unfortunately, the session ended with no agreement between the two chambers as to how far in advance of Election Day local officials should be allowed to start processing ballots, so it reverted to “zero days.” Several emergency bills to remedy this problem in 2022 are already in the works. Hopefully the General Assembly can concur on a time frame.
* EXPANDING BALLOT ACCESS FOR ELIGIBLE INCARCERATED AND RETURNING CITIZENS. The League supported legislation that in 2016 restored full voting rights to non-felons who are currently incarcerated and to felons who have served their sentences and are returning to their communities. However, no system was put in place to help these people register to vote, receive and return a ballot, and obtain election-related information and instructions. Legislation passed in 2021 to set up such a system was ultimately watered down, and some important provisions removed. (See https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2021RS/bills/hb/hb0222E.pdf, and note all the strikethroughs from the original “Value My Vote Act” wording.) LWVMD will again join with other advocates urging legislators, along with state corrections and election officials, to address these deficiencies and prevent disenfranchisement of eligible citizens.
* IMPROVING ACCESSIBILITY FOR ALL VOTERS. The League works closely with policymakers, election officials, and advocacy partners who share the goal of increasing voter participation. Last year, bills were passed to ensure more accessible siting of Early Voting centers and ballot drop boxes. This year, several legislators plan to propose a variety of additional enhancements to make voting easier and polling places more welcoming for people who have disabilities, transportation difficulties, language barriers, and other obstacles. The good news is that straightforward, relatively minor upgrades can often be implemented by modifying regulations and/or training protocols instead of passing new laws. This can be preferable to locking a rule into law — experience may show that a different procedure would be more effective, and it is easier to modify a regulation.
* URGING A FAIRER SYSTEM TO FILL LEGISLATIVE VACANCIES. The League has long had a position supporting special elections to fill vacancies in the General Assembly, thereby giving constituents a stronger voice in choosing their representatives. Currently, the Governor appoints a candidate recommended by the political party that last held the vacant seat. This creates a system wherein a very small group of political insiders decides the representation of over 40,000 residents each time a vacancy occurs. Maryland is one of 22 states that allow such vacancies to be filled by appointment rather than by the democratic process of a special election.
Maryland should end the cycle in which between a quarter and a third of all voters are represented by legislators who either weren’t elected or were given the advantage of incumbency at the time of the next election thanks to their prior appointment. This practice also disenfranchises voters who aren’t registered with either major political party, or who have no affiliation with their party’s central committee. Our neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Delaware fill legislative vacancies through special elections, and even Georgia and Texas do so.
We urge the General Assembly to pass legislation to address this issue. Because it’s difficult to hold a special election when an upcoming regular election is imminent, an appropriate cut-off date should be specified.
Unsurprisingly, it’s challenging to get buy-in for this proposal from legislators who were themselves appointed to their seats and thus had the benefit of incumbency at the next regular election. We’ll keep up our efforts, though.
Note: Special elections also offer an opportunity to use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), a system the city of Takoma Park has already implemented for its municipal elections. New York City has done likewise, and the entire state of Maine relies on RCV for its statewide and federal elections. Using RCV for special elections to fill a legislative vacancy would have the added benefit of going straight to a general election with no need to hold a primary.
* RESTRUCTURING THE SELECTION OF CIRCUIT COURT JUDGES. Maryland’s Circuit Courts are where jury trials are held, although some cases may be decided by a judge only. Two proposals are likely to be introduced concerning the selection of these judges. One would change the nomination of Circuit Court Judges from a partisan basis to nonpartisan, similar to Boards of Education. The other would eliminate contested elections and provide instead that they be appointed by the Governor, subject to confirmation by the state Senate. After ten years they would be subject to a retention election, similar to the process for appellate court judges.
Nonpartisan Election of Judges — Maryland’s process for electing Circuit Court judges is unusual. Although it is desirable that judges be nonpartisan, they are nominated on party ballots and therefore only voters affiliated with the Republican or Democratic parties can vote for them. All candidates appear on both parties’ ballots, and the top finishers in each party’s primary are then placed on the general election ballot. However, this process excludes the increasing number of unaffiliated voters from the key step of selecting nominees for these offices. It is also confusing to voters as the top vote-getters in one party may be different from the winners in the other party, yet no party identification appears on the general election ballot. In many counties, the incumbent judges run unopposed, so voters see the same names on both the primary and general election ballots. The proposed change would mandate that candidates for Circuit Court Judge appear on the nonpartisan section of primary ballots so all voters can participate in selecting the nominees to go on the general election ballot.
Eliminating Contested Elections of Circuit Court Judges — Under current law, a Circuit Court judge appointed by the Governor must stand for election at the next general election, and any qualified attorney may run against them. LWVMD supports a system in which candidates for judge are appointed by the Governor from names recommended by a merit selection panel and are then subject to a retention election (i.e., the ballot lists the judge’s name with the question “Should this judge be retained in office?” and voters mark Yes or No). This legislation has been introduced in prior years, but opponents have argued that contested elections are needed to ensure there is diversity and that the Governor does not appoint only members of her or his own party.
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IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE: Detailed information and updates on the League’s advocacy can be found at the LWVMD Action Blog (https://www.lwvmd.org/action_blog). Information on all bills, including sponsors, committee hearing dates, and more, is available at the Maryland General Assembly website (https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/). Click on “Video Tutorials” under the heading “Quick Links” at the bottom of the MGA home page for helpful guidance in navigating the website.