Baltimore — COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges to many aspects of American life, not least the orderly execution of elections. Across the country, state and locals boards of elections have struggled to quickly pivot to plan for elections conducted primarily by mail. In Maryland, the challenge of preparing and mailing ballots to about 4 million registered voters is indeed no small feat. Delays sometimes happen and may be unavoidable, but the lack of transparency and clear communication from the State Board of Elections threatens to undermine our collective efforts to build trust in the vote by mail process for this crucial election.
It is now two weeks before Election Day and many Baltimore City voters have not received ballots. Last month, the state Board of Elections announced that ballots would be mailed to registered Baltimore City voters on May 8th. On Friday, May 15th, the board told the Baltimore Sun that Baltimore City ballots had, indeed, been mailed on May 8th. Two days later, the board told the Sun that Baltimore City ballots were not mailed on May 8th, but beginning on May 14th and 15th and would arrive citywide May 23rd, just nine days before ballots are due.
This lack of transparency is unacceptable.
Voting by mail is a new experience for most Marylanders, one that many, particularly in marginalized communities, are hesitant to trust. The Baltimore Votes coalition and partners have been working to educate voters and build trust in the vote-by-mail process, which is used widely around the country. Indeed, the State Board of Elections has been a partner in that effort, participating in voter education webinars attended by more than 1,000 local community leaders and voters.
But the lack of transparency from the State Board of Elections undermines those efforts. Baltimore City, the jurisdiction with the highest percentage of Black voters, will be the last jurisdiction in the state to receive ballots. Without clear, advance communication acknowledging and explaining the delays, Baltimore City voters are left more confused about the process and less likely to trust it and exercise their democratic right to vote.
Given the delays in delivering ballots to Baltimore City, the state Board of Elections must accommodate city voters. We call on the Maryland Board of Elections to take the following actions to address it:
- Accept and count all Baltimore City ballots that are postmarked before June 8th
- Make a representative of the State Board of Elections available in a public forum to answer questions from local advocates and voters in Baltimore City by May 26
- Immediately give a full accounting of the delays in distributing Baltimore City ballots and give regular, public updates on their status
- Take explicit measures to build trust among the electorate, particularly in marginalized and disenfranchised communities in Baltimore City, potentially including the following:
- Increase the number of drop boxes in Baltimore City
- Offer voters who have not received ballots the opportunity to pick them up
- Offer drive-by ballot drop-off locations
Despite challenges in the run-up to the April 28 Special Election, Baltimore City had its highest-ever turnout for a Congressional Special Election. We are hopeful that Baltimore City voters will also turn out in unprecedented numbers for the June 2 Primary Election and November 3rd General Election. Improved procedures and increased transparency from the Boards of Election make such an outcome much more likely.