The Montgomery County Council is criticizing Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to allow all polling sites to open for the 2020 general election in November and require applications for absentee ballots.
Absentee applications will be mailed to each registered voter.
Instead, council members said they want absentee ballots — not just applications — to automatically be mailed to all voters to increase participation and create a safe voting option.
The council expects to vote on a resolution Tuesday that calls for Hogan to mail ballots to voters, include prepaid return envelopes and provide touch-free drop off boxes for the ballots.
The proposed resolution also calls for the governor to allow local Board of Elections to decide the appropriate number of early voting sites and polling locations to open.
Council Member Evan Glass noted that more than 90% of residents in the state voted with a mail-in ballot for the June primary election.
“To ignore that fact as we plan for our November election would be foolish,” he said.
Council Member Andrew Friedson credited Hogan with handling management of the pandemic well, but criticized his election plan.
“We should be following the guidance of our public health experts and our local elections officials. Elections should be as accessible and convenient as possible, so that our residents can cast ballots,” he said. “That’s what elections are all about. But they have to be as safe as possible so that nobody has to risk their life to exercise their right to cast a ballot.”
During a press conference on Wednesday, Hogan said the June 2 primary was an “unmitigated disaster.” Thousands of ballots were mailed late or didn’t arrive at all, arrived in a different language than requested, or were sent to the wrong districts. No early voting was allowed.
Hogan also criticized the State Board of Elections for poor planning with long lines at the few in-person voting centers, creating hours of delays in voting and receiving results.
On June 3, state Comptroller Peter Franchot of Takoma Park called on State Board of Elections Chief Linda Lamone to resign because of the multiple issues that voters faced during the primary. He said a “new culture of accountability and competence” is needed. Other state officials have echoed his call for her resignation because of the same concerns.
Lamone has not responsed to calls for her resignation, but has said the State Board had to handle unexpected issues and was left with little time to plan for the primary’s focus on mail-in ballots.
The State Board of Elections and a Minnesota-based vendor in charge of producing and mailing ballots — SeaChange Print Innovation — blamed each other for the ballot issues.
Officials at the Montgomery County Board of Elections could not be reached Thursday afternoon.
Hogan said Wednesday that there’s been a lot of misinformation and partisan politics regarding the general election plan. He said he would “set the record straight once and for all.”
He said he requested a review of the issues but after more than a month, the State Board of Elections was “unable to reach any kind of consensus or come up with any recommended changes in the law for the November election.”
In the State Board of Elections’ July 2 report on the primary election, officials wrote that almost 3.6 million ballots were sent and blamed SeaChange Print Innovation for not performing “as expected.” Almost 160,000 ballots were returned to local Boards of Elections because they could not be delivered.
Among the changes the state board expects to make for the general election: mailing ballots at least 30 days before the general election, working with the U.S. Postal Service to improve delivery rates for ballots, and increasing the number of drop-off ballot boxes.
In Montgomery County, roughly 14% of mailed ballots were returned to a ballot drop-off box.
The situation has descended into a typical partisan argument, Hogan said, over an election plan that follows the CDC’s June 22 guidance for elections to have as many voting options as possible.
“We’re trying to take the politics out of all of this,” Hogan said. “We’re following the advice of health experts and existing state law. … which requires voting on election day and which requires the polls to be open.”
He said he encourages all voters to cast absentee ballots.
In a Tuesday letter to Budget Secretary David Brinkley and chairs of the legislative budget committees, Lamone said around $20 million would be needed to implement Hogan’s election plan, as reported by The Washington Post.
Lamone said the number of absentee ballots for the general election will be “significantly” higher this year than in prior elections, according to the Post.
Hogan needs to reverse the “unwise, costly” decision, Council Vice President Tom Hucker said Tuesday.
“[Issues] can be avoided with this election but there’s no reason at all to jeopardize voter turnout by not mailing ballots directly to all the voters,” he said.
Hogan defended his plan in response to critics who have called it “voter suppression.” He said it was the opposite of suppression because voters are being given multiple options for casting ballots.
“We cannot have a repeat of the primary where people were not able to cast their vote. They didn’t know their precincts were closed, where to go,” he said. “I don’t think you can have anything tougher to suppress the vote than not having the polls open, people not knowing where to go and having four-hour waits in line as they did during the primary.”
Council Member Gabe Albornoz said requiring in-person voting could set the state back in combating the virus.
“Why take such drastic potential steps backward by putting forward a plan for a business-as-usual election?” Albornoz said.
Election judges and volunteers will be put at risk of deciding between civic duty and their health, Albornoz said, adding that his 74-year-old father signed up to serve as an election judge.
“That is a false choice and it is imperative that the governor reconsider his position on this, acknowledging there were absolutely challenges with the primary. … But let’s fix those issues,” Albornoz said. “Let’s not go so significantly backwards and risk what will likely be one of the biggest voter turnout elections in modern history and put people at risk. That is absurd to me.”
Council Member Hans Riemer echoed Albornoz’s concerns.
“Who would want to be an election judge? We should be very concerned about our ability to get election judges, who are often seniors,” he said. “We have high school students and seniors who provide that support and will they feel safe in that capacity? This is a terrible, terrible problem.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.