Gaithersburg officials are considering mail voting for its 2021 municipal election as a way to increase voter turnout.
The city’s Board of Supervisors of Elections met on Thursday to discuss multiple scenarios in which the city would implement a vote-by-mail system for next year’s race.
Gaithersburg holds elections every two years for the mayor and City Council members, who all serve staggered four-year terms. Next year’s election is scheduled for Nov. 2, 2021.
City officials have been considering the idea of using a vote-by-mail system for elections since before the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to increase turnout.
Turnout during the past six election cycles in the city has ranged from 5% to 13%. In 2019, the most recent city election, turnout was 6.54%.
During past elections, voters have had the option of voting in person early or in person on Election Day, or casting absentee ballots by mail.
City Attorney Lynn Board said during Thursday’s meeting that one method would be to hold the election entirely by mail, in which every registered voter in the city would receive a ballot without having to request one. Voters could return the ballot by mailing it back or placing it in a drop box in the city.
In 2019, Rockville conducted its election by mail, but residents could also vote in-person at City Hall on Election Day.
Board also noted on Thursday that Rockville’s election turnout was 29% in 2019, compared to the previous four elections, in which the turnout was between 15% and 17%.
Another method would be a “hybrid” model, in which voters would receive applications to request mail-in ballots.
After filling out an application, voterw would receive a ballot and could either mail back their completed ballot in a separate envelope or place it in a drop box. The hybrid model would also include in-person voting on Election Day, Board said.
The hybrid election model, Board said, is similar to the one used in this year’s presidential election in Maryland. The hybrid system was put in place this year due to the pandemic.
According to a city analysis, the estimated cost of an election conducted entirely by mail in Gaithersburg would be $223,100, and the hybrid model would cost $123,950. The cost of the in-person election model that the city has used in the past is about $67,600.
Ballot printing and postage costs add significantly to the expense of a mail-in election, Board said.
Ty Hardaway, a member of the Board of Supervisors of Elections, said it’s important to keep in mind the differences between city elections in Rockville and Gaithersburg when thinking about the higher costs of a mail-in election.
“I just want to remind everyone that Rockville is a little better able to absorb this [cost] because they are now in a four-year-cycle, whereas Gaithersburg remains in a two-year-cycle. And I think that’s something to keep in mind as we compare the numbers,” he said.
Board member Bill Snyder said he favored the hybrid election model, and asked if the city had considered going to a four-year-cycle instead of a two-year-cycle. Board responded that the city considered the idea eight to 10 years ago.
“Certainly, there’s an advantage to that, as in cost savings,” she said. “The disadvantage is that you have all candidates run at once. So, you potentially have a lot of turnover.”
The Board of Supervisors of Elections will make a recommendation to the City Council at its Jan. 13 meeting. The council is scheduled to vote on the method on Feb. 1.
Through Dec. 31, people can fill out a survey on their preferred election method or send comments to email@example.com.
Council Member Ryan Spiegel said he generally supports any voting method that will increase turnout, particularly if the pandemic is still going on late into next year.
“Our goal is that we should be trying to make it easier to vote, within reason, make it more accessible, particularly if there’s some level of quarantining or partial quarantining into the fall of 2021,” he said.
Council Member Laurie-Anne Sayles said she is interested in exploring the possibility of moving the city to four-year election cycles that occur in presidential years.
“If we’re trying to increase turnout, presidential years are the best years for voters to get engaged,” she said.
Council Member Neil Harris disagreed.
“We’d be so far down ballot that it’d be difficult to get people’s attention,” he said. “We’re seeing in the comments on recent elections that school board races, which are very important, and judgeship races are not getting the level of scrutiny by voters that presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial elections and so forth are getting.”
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