Category Archives: voting rights

The Voting Wars Come to Maryland

Where Matters Stand Now

Maryland has been in quite a ferment over whether to mail out ballots to everyone as opposed to sending out mail-ballot applications to everyone. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) insisted on the latter and got his way. But Democrats vehemently want the former and mail-ballot applications have yet to hit mailboxes.

Originally, the Governor wanted all polling places to open too but has now bowed to the reality that there are not enough people to staff them and reluctantly allowed the State Board of Elections (SBOE) to combine them into many fewer. Let’s hope the remaining polling places have more voting kiosks than usual, so they can process more people than a standard polling place.

Early voting should continue relatively normally. I’d anticipate high demand not just due to interest in the election but also to concern about mail ballot delivery and voting on election day.

We will also have many more drop off boxes. According to the WaPo, Montgomery County plans to go from two or three to forty this year. Prince George’s plans on adding an additional thirty-six boxes. Sen. Cheryl Kagan, who has been very active on election issues, tells me we should have even more than anticipated. The more, the better.

How Are We Doing on that Shift to Mail Voting?

Not so good. The adjustment to much higher rates of mail voting has been far from glitch free. Some of our ballots for the all-mail primary got sent to South Carolina. Those of us who applied for mail ballots did not receive them initially even though people who had not requested them had.

In general, ballots arrived later than they should’ve with delays especially long in some areas of the state. It’s a good thing we opened up polling places, after a lawsuit, but the lines were too long and the state should have known they were required without being sued.

We don’t seem off to a roaring start for the general in which mail voting is heavily encouraged but not every voter will be sent a ballot. Again, the state has failed so far to send mail ballot applications. The Governor can blame the State Board of Elections but surely should have some responsibility for making sure that they can implement a plan before mandating it.

Will It Matter?

The switch from away from all-mail might depress turnout as voters won’t have the ballot sent directly to their home unless they request it. The State Board of Elections has very belatedly made the online application less intimidating. Speaker Adrienne Jones was quite right to highlight that issue.

At the same time, polling places will be open both for early voting and election day voting, so the overall impact of the switch is hard to assess. The chances for any impact on contests seems low because there just aren’t a lot of hot races.

Compared to many other states, we’re not voting for much in Maryland this year. No state legislative elections and few local elections. We don’t even have a U.S. Senate race. I can call the winners of Maryland’s ten presidential electors and eight congressional races now.

The few partisan local races don’t look very exciting. My knowledge of Baltimore City and Cecil County politics is relatively slim. But I do know that Democrats are usually a lock in Baltimore and Republicans the same in Cecil. I’m afraid I can’t speak to the contest for a seat on the Wicomico County Council.

I suppose the change in voting might have an impact if some of the nonpartisan school board and judicial races turn out very close. Judicial contests operate below the radar for most people. Several challengers, however, upset incumbents in the primary, so these contests are more heated than usual. Still, while I’m sure the cognoscenti are interested, Maryland’s judicial races lack the partisan juice of Wisconsin.

If the switch away from all-mail depresses turnout, the main concern might be that it somewhat lightens the weight of Maryland’s contribution to Joe Biden’s national vote margin. That’s of more interest than usual since Donald Trump seems intent on doing his tinpot dictator impression by casting doubt on any ballots that are not cast for him.

On the other hand, if more people vote in person out of concern over the mail, it will also lead to fewer invalidated votes. Unlike at polling places, mail-ballot voters who make a mistake, such as failing to sign the ballot oath, have no chance to correct their errors and the ballot gets tossed.

Problems with Both Mail and All-Mail Voting

We don’t have signature checks in Maryland to make sure that the person who voted and mailed the ballot was the voter. In fact, they are illegal under Maryland law. As a result, even if we shifted to all mail, we could not implement them in the manner of every state that normally does all-mail voting (and California) unless the General Assembly changed the law. Interestingly, this seems to have eluded both sides in the debate over the Governor’s election plan.

This hasn’t been much of an issue in the past as Maryland usually has a lot of early voters but comparatively few mail voters.

We have the signatures on file, so we could do signature checks if the General Assembly changed the law. Some argue against them as unnecessary because there are few problematic ballots in states with checks. But this type of fraud seems a lot less likely when people are checking up on it. Absentee ballot manipulation is exactly how Republicans attempted to steal a 2018 North Carolina congressional election. (In person fraud is different and extremely rare notwithstanding vehement Republican partisan demands for voter ID to solve a non-problem.)

If you have signature checks, you also must find a way to give voters a chance to cure (i.e. validate) any questionable ballots to avoid disfranchising voters. This isn’t always easy and needs improvement. But it’s vital because checking signatures is not an exact science and we want to protect against disfranchisement.

Precinct Reporting

In Maryland during the all-mail primary, the Board of Elections did not attribute ballots cast by mail back to the precinct. The ballots didn’t have codes on them that made that easy. Local county boards can still do if they’re willing. Many won’t because it’s a lot of work but I was pleased to learn that the Montgomery County Board of Elections is going to do it.

For the general, the SBOE tells me that the ballots will have precinct codes, but the proof is in the pudding. Precinct results are very nice to have not just for political researchers and junkies like me but because they are a critical tool in detecting fraud or other problems.

Two Bright Spots

During the primary, the State allowed jurisdictions to count mail-in ballots when they were received but not to release the vote totals until after the polls closed on election day. This allowed for faster reporting of initial results. The same is planned for the general election.

The Governor’s election plan to encourage mail voting by sending ballot applications but not mailing ballots is much more expensive and places real burdens on county boards to process applications. Originally, the Governor and SBOE wanted counties to foot one-half of the bill for the postage paid return envelope. Thanks to efforts by Sen. Kagan along with the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) and Montgomery County, SBOE has now agreed to cover the substantial cost of this unfunded mandate.

Final Note: Stop Playing Trump’s Game

As Law Professor Richard Pildes explained, disagreement between Donald Trump and Democrats over mail and all-mail voting has no point. Excepting Nevada, the only states using all-mail voting are the same ones that always use it. Democrats would be better served by emphasizing that all the swing states are using absentee voting (the same as mail voting in Maryland), which Trump has declared okele-dokele. Use his own argument against him to fight very doubt he’s manufacturing. In other words, don’t have an argument to no purpose that benefits him instead of Democrats even if he’s wrong.

The post office, however, bears watching. I can’t regard the lack of mail service at my home yesterday as an encouraging sign. The claims that all is well are belied by Trump’s blunt statements that he doesn’t want funding for USPS because it would aid in mail voting, which he sees as bad for him. Dismantling sorting machines also seems unlikely to increase postal efficiency. It’s also a terrible issue for Republicans.

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Maryland Needs to Do Much Better to Protect the 2020 Elections

Yesterday, the State Board of Elections made a bad decision. They decided to switch to all-mail voting for this year’s elections (fine) but doing so without putting in standard protections (definitely not fine) taken by states like Oregon that conduct all of their elections by mail:

Board members questioned how the state will verify that ballots are being cast by the actual voters they sent them to. Charlson said the state’s current absentee ballot procedure is to check for a signature.

“We’re not actually looking at the signatures, are we?” asked Howells. “In vote-by-mail states, I think they used software to compare the signatures.”

“Our problem is we are not a vote-by-mail state, so we have no real safeguards built into it,” Cogan said.

The board quickly moved on from the topic.

Read my op-ed piece online now or in the print edition of tomorrow’s Baltimore Sun to learn more on why this is a problem and more generally what the State needs to do to make sure the 2020 elections come off well despite challenges posed by coronavirus. Otherwise, close elections like the upcoming Baltimore City mayoral primary could go bad surprisingly fast.

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Shocking: Democratic Sen. Nat Oaks Sponsors Voter ID Legislation

Newly appointed Baltimore City Democratic Sen. Nathaniel Oaks (D 41) has sponsored a voter identification bill (see the text below). Such legislation is normally presented by Republicans in order to disfranchise Democrats, especially minorities, in the guise of combating the boogeyman of voter fraud.

In the House of Delegates, the same legislation has been cross-filed by Del. Neil Parrott of transgender paranoia fame and cosponsored by thirteen other Republicans. No Democrat has cosponsored the House legislation and no one has cosponsored Oaks’ bill.

Study after study has shown voter fraud is virtually non-existent. As Colombia University Prof. Lorraine Minnite put it, “The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud.” It’s appalling that Oaks is fighting to suppress the right to vote instead of to protect and to expand it.

UPDATE: I am told that Oaks did this by “mistake.” He asked for all of his House bills to be cross-filed and there was an error with the number. How this happened and why he never noticed or withdrew the bill, I don’t know. Sources say he plans to withdraw the bill but it’s still on the website, though languishing in the Rules Committee.

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Ex-Felons Demand Removal of Baltimore City Board of Elections Chair for Voter Suppression

From the Communities United Press Release:

“We have the right to due process!”

Ex-Felons and Members of the Community Demand the Immediate Removal of Sr. Director, Armistead Jones.

Baltimore, Md. – Communities United chapter of Ex-Felons are holding a press conference and rally to call for the immediate dismissal of Sr. Director, Armistead Jones. Under the leadership of Mr. Armistead Jones, the Baltimore City Board of Elections has made a mockery of the voting process, which can be viewed as voter suppression. Numerous errors have occurred under the leadership of Mr. Jones;  enough for him to be called before a special hearing in the Maryland Senate to explain the debacle of the most recent Primary Election. Even at that time, Sr. Director Jones has repeatedly failed the members of his staff, while never taking any personal accountability or ownership of the failings in his role as Sr. Director of the Baltimore Office of the Board of Elections. Mr. Jones’ position of leadership requires that personal accountability for the proper execution of all tasks be solely his. Perry Hopkins, a Field Organizer for Communities United and Ex-Felon states, “Voting is the bedrock of our democracy and as such, we must have absolute faith in the process and be able to rely on those entrusted to handle our votes, accurately count our votes and accurately report the results in an orderly and timely manner.” As a direct result of mismanagement by the current leadership of Sr. Director, Armistead Jones, this was clearly not the case across Baltimore City in the last and most recent Primary Election cycle.

Sr. Director Jones has repeatedly faulted the members of his staff, while never taking any personal accountability or ownership of the failings in his role as the head administrator and Sr. Director of the Baltimore Office of the Board of Elections. Mr. Jones’ position of leadership requires that personal accountability for the proper execution of all tasks be solely his.  Kimberly Haven, an Ex-Felon and advocate stated, “It is our contention, that the actions of Mr. Jones (and his office) not only violated the basic tenet of trust in the execution of our voting process, but in our Democracy as well.”

“I think it’s a personal matter of how he feels. He doesn’t want to look at the Ex-Felons who want to vote, because he’s not concerned about our rights,” says Reginald Smith.

All of the problems listed below, happened on Sr. Director, Armistead Jones’ watch:

1. Several polls did not open or close on time, thereby suppressing the vote, as voters were turned away.

2. Unlawful letters were sent to numerous newly enfranchised Ex-Felon Voters, discouraging them to register to vote, which is an act of voter suppression.

3. There were not sufficient numbers of functionally trained judges to service voters at polling sites.

4. Of his own volition, the Sr. Director certified election results before all votes were accurately counted.

5. Votes and voting ballots were improperly handled and miscounted. Provisional ballots were scanned, over 1000 more votes were erroneously cast than were checked in, and boxes of ballots were missing only to be found at a later date.

6. His current actions have now breached the public trust in the proper and accurate execution of the voting process and his continued tenure also serves as an act of voter suppression.

7. Reasons supporting the termination of Mr. Jones’ tenure clearly outweigh reasons to retain him, as indicated by his recent performance in the service of Baltimore City Voters.

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Override Thursday: Voting Rights and Marriott

Voting Rights Restoration Override Vote Postponed

The Maryland Senate special ordered (i.e. postponed) the vote on the Governor’s veto of the bill to restore the voting rights of ex-felons to a later date. The House overrode the Governor’s veto yesterday. The lead sponsors are Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Cory McCray.

The Senate President stated forthrightly on the floor that this was to allow time for the appointment of a replacement to former Sen. Karen Montgomery (D-14). Rumor has it that many General Assembly Democrats are not thrilled about the timing or handling of this appointment.

Keep Marriott in Maryland

The Maryland Senate took a major step toward keeping Marriott headquarters in Maryland by overriding the Governor’s veto of a bill that requires the same tax rate levied on hotel rooms sold by third-party hotel bookers as by the hotels themselves.

This seemingly obvious fairness–the major request of the Marriott Corporation whose headquarters Montgomery County is working hard to retain–had the Governor cowering in fear that it might be cast as a tax increase. It’s evidence that the Governor’s ideological passion exceeds his desire to keep major companies in Maryland.

As the tally sheet shows, the Senate achieved the 29 votes required to override a veto with one to spare despite Sen. Montgomery’s retirement. A real victory for Senate Budget and Taxation Vice Chair Rich Madaleno who pushed hard for the bill.

Marriott OverrideTwo vote switchers from the original bill are Sen. Addie Eckardt (R-Eastern Shore) and Sen. John Astle (D-Anne Arundel). Eckardt’s switch was not surprising, as Republicans tend to want to rally around the Governor to support a veto.

In contrast, Astle is a member of the Democratic leadership team, so his vote to support the Governor was a shock. Indeed, this Montgomery blogger wonders if Montgomery Senate Democrats might return the favor by voting to uphold the veto on funding for Anne Arundel–except that the Speaker wants it.

UPDATE: Sen. C. Anthony Muse also flipped, which is interesting since Gaylord Marriott, located at National Harbor in his district, in Prince George’s made it a top priority. Additionally. Sens. DeGrange and Peters–both Democrats–switched from red on the original bill to voting to green on this vote.

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A Great Way to Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Audio Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Give Us the Ballot” Address at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an indefatigable fighter for voting rights. A great way to honor his legacy would be for the General Assembly to overturn Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that would restore voting rights to ex-felons.

The bill would restore the voting rights of 40,000 people. Its lead sponsors are Del. Cory McCray in the House and Sen. Joan Carter Conway in the Senate. The House of Delegates website says that it adopted a motion by Del. Anne Kaiser to special order the bill for an override vote on January 20th. Turning this bill into law would be a great start to the legislative session.

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Ending Felon Disfranchisement

Freshman Del. Cory McCray (D-45) and Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-43), the Chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee are sponsoring a bill (HB 980/SB  340) to restore the voting rights of former felons:

The bill would remove the obstacles that are in the way of an estimated 40,000 ex-offenders in Maryland who want to vote.

Current law in Maryland prohibits individuals with a felony conviction from voting until after they have finished parole, probation and paid restitution. Advocates say many of the former felons who are eligible to vote are uncertain of their voting status. They fear of being accused of voter fraud and being arrested again.

[Sen. Joan Carter] Conway described the current law as a form a voter suppression.

“The criteria doesn’t make sense,” Conway said. “The debt has been paid.”

A Good and Right Idea

The General Assembly should pass this legislation for a variety of reasons. First, we should make it easier for people who have the legal right to vote to participate–not placing barriers in their path, including fear of running afoul of the law.

Some may not like that former criminals get to vote. But we are all citizens of this country. Once someone has paid their debt to society, their citizenship rights, including rights, should be restored as part of their return to the community.

Moreover, the criminal justice system does not always treat similar offenses in the same way. As a result, some people who commit become classified as ex-felons while others do not. There is no reason for this disparity in sentencing–a whole different area for debate–to carry over into the restoration of voting rights.

But Don’t Expect Too Much

Studies show that education is the best predictor of the likelihood to vote. Additionally, people who are more likely to vote include older voters, married voters, and people with a long-established residence.

As a group, former felons are far less likely than other Americans to possess these characteristics. Difficulties in obtaining a job exacerbate problems in gaining a stable housing situation. Barring some very serious organization, former felons will remain much less likely to register or to cast a ballot.

So Republicans who fear that this is a plot by Democrats to get more of “their” voters on the rolls should chill. The impact will likely be small. More importantly, even if every single one voted, no political party worthy of the name should be afraid of citizens participating in our democratic process.

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