PROTECTING THE VOTE
submitted by Janet Millenson
The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that voting is a fundamental citizen right that must be guaranteed. Since its beginning, the League has urged state, local and federal governments to reform election laws and procedures so that voters have an equal voice in the entire election process and are encouraged to participate.
The pandemic upended Maryland’s 2020 election process, but even though conditions have improved, 2022 made it clear we’re not going to return to the voting patterns of previous years. For one thing, mail-in ballots no longer amount to a mere five or six percent of the total ballots cast. In November’s election these represented more than a quarter of the total — over half a million. This change has major implications for the state and local Boards of Elections’ operations.
Another significant challenge in 2022 arose when the Primary Election date was postponed for three weeks as a final decennial redistricting plan worked its way through the courts. This date change led to a severe shortage of election workers and the need to relocate several polling places that had become unavailable. The ensuing delay in certifying the election results also shortened the time available to prepare ballots for November.
Despite the compressed timeline, the General Election went well for the most part. The State Board of Elections obtained court authorization to start processing the flood of mail-in ballots before Election Day, which helped enable statewide results to be certified in early December.
The League will continue to advocate for improvements in many of the areas we focused on last year: administration, access, and accountability. We anticipate that some issues can be resolved via regulations rather than legislation.
* ALLOW PROCESSING OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS BEFORE ELECTION DAY. It’s still not in statute. Last year the General Assembly did finally pass a bill (SB 163) that would have codified the ability of local Boards of Elections to deal with the vast increase of ballots returned by mail or drop box. (Our 2022 testimony in favor of SB 163 can be found on the MGA website here.) Maryland is the only state requiring all ballot processing to wait until after Election Day. Unfortunately, outgoing Governor Hogan vetoed SB 163 in late May because he disapproved of its other provisions, making it impossible for the legislature to override the veto. Although the option to start ballot processing early has been authorized on an emergency basis several times recently, we need to ensure it becomes permanent. The League will support this effort.
* MAKE OTHER IMPROVEMENTS TO THE VOTE-BY-MAIL PROCESS. Ballot tracking is a popular feature that should be enhanced to provide prompt updates on the status of voters’ mail-in ballots. This will help reduce the number of people who come in person to vote provisionally because they’re not sure if the ballot they put in a mailbox or drop box actually reached the Board of Elections. Also, if a mail-in ballot arrives on time but the oath is unsigned, voters should be offered options to “cure” the problem rather than have their ballot rejected. These upgrades may not require legislative mandates; they can be implemented by the state Board of Elections.
* ENSURE BETTER ACCESSIBILITY FOR ALL VOTERS. The League’s bedrock position on the election process is that it should increase voter participation and be equitable and accessible. Although much progress has been made in recent years to help voters with disabilities and to increase outreach to underserved populations, there are still gaps to be addressed. The League works closely with a variety of advocacy groups to push for laws and regulations that will accomplish this. We will continue to oppose bills that could disenfranchise qualified voters.
* REVIEW AND IMPROVE THE ELECTION PROCESS. Hundreds of experienced election workers stayed home in 2020 and didn’t return in 2022, leaving a large shortfall in many polling places. Offering higher stipends and flexible scheduling will make it easier to recruit and retain election workers. Board of Elections staffers are also underpaid for the essential, complex work they do. However, there also needs to be a better means to oversee the Boards and to ensure the transparency of major procurements.