Governor Larry Hogan has received well deserved accolades for his bold and visionary leadership in combating the coronavirus pandemic.
Now he needs to demonstrate that same foresight to assure all Marylanders can vote safely and easily by mail in November’s critical national election.
In early February, after President Trump cavalierly dismissed the virus as “one person coming in from China,” Governor Hogan, as chairman of the National Governors Association, galvanized the nation’s governors to act aggressively to combat the virus in their states.
Here in Maryland, he did exactly that.
When St. Patrick’s Day revelers ignored warnings to socially distance, he acted swiftly to close the bars and issue a stay at home order for the state’s residents. By June, with the virus curve heading downward, Maryland was on course to a prudent re-opening.
When it became apparent that the federal government had botched virus testing, Hogan, using his wife’s connections in her native land, ingeniously purchased 500,000 test kits from South Korea. (If my personal experience is any indication, the Maryland testing system is quick and efficient.)
And, when he determined that Marylanders could not safely vote in the April primary, the governor boldly postponed the election and mailed ballots to all voters. Rearranged on short notice, the primary did not come off without glitches, but overall turnout was high, and most voters cast their ballots safely by mail.
Moreover, Governor Hogan has consistently demonstrated the courage to criticize President Trump for his gross mishandling of the pandemic, something too few of his Republican colleagues in Congress and State Houses have been willing to do.
Last week, he called the White House efforts to smear Dr. Anthony Fauci, the world’s pre-eminent expert on infectious diseases, “absolutely outrageous.” And, Thursday, he penned an oped in the Washington Post sharply critical of the president.
“I’d watched as the president downplayed the outbreak’s severity and as the White House failed to issue public warnings, draw up a 50-state strategy, or dispatch medical gear or lifesaving ventilators to American hospitals,” he wrote. “Eventually, it was clear that waiting around for the president to run the nation’s response was hopeless.”
Because he showed such courage in tackling the coronavirus, I expected that he’d ignore the president’s ridiculous daily rants against mail-in voting and make voting by mail as easy as possible for Marylanders for the general election, just as he had for the primary – especially since the Center for Disease Control had recommended that “voters should seek alternatives to casting ballots in person this November.”
So, I found it surprising and a bit disturbing when earlier this month the governor announced that he would not mail ballots directly to voters for the presidential election. Instead, the state will mail voters applications for absentee ballots. Before they can receive a mail-in ballot, voters will have to fill out and return that application, creating an additional burden for both voters and state election officials.
That extra step will undoubtedly result in fewer votes being cast by mail and more voters lining up at the polls, hardly what we need during a pandemic. To spread out the in person voting, the governor pledged that polling places would be open in every precinct on election day and during the early voting period.
Hogan said he was acting to correct problems in the primary where the mailed-out ballots did not get to all voters on time and some voters got multiple ballots and where, with limited polling places open, lines were long. Those problems need to be corrected and hopefully they can be before the November balloting. There’s plenty of time. When the governor postponed the primary state election, after all, officials had just 52 days to convert to an entirely new vote by mail system. Now they still have double that amount of time – 104 days – to work out the bugs. And, with the trial run in the primary, they should know what they need to fix.
But it’s hard to see how adding the intermediate step of mailing out applications for absentee ballots will do anything but further gum up the system and result in fewer ballots being cast by mail. Most likely, it will result in suppressing turnout – exactly what the president wants to achieve – but not a formula for a vibrant democracy.
In theory, returning to a normal in person early and election day voting may seem a like a good idea – we’re all eager to return to normal – but, in practice, during a pandemic, it’s likely to turn into a disaster. For one thing, it will be hard to find enough poll workers – who are likely to be elderly and more vulnerable to coronavirus – to cover all precincts. Then there are the problems of insuring proper social distancing among voters and keeping polling places sanitized for 12 hours a day during early voting and 13 hours on election day.
Finally, who’s to say that by election day the virus will be under control in Maryland or any other state, for that matter — that we won’t be undergoing a second wave of the pandemic that will make it even more dangerous for voters to vote in person.
Ironically, since the day Hogan issued his election order, the number of cases in the state, Anne Arundel County, and zip code 21401, which covers most of Annapolis, has risen sharply. That’s not encouraging.
According to the Maryland Department of Health, in the eight days before the July 8 order, there was a daily average of 413 new cases in the state. In the 11 days since, that daily average has jumped to 661, a 60 percent increase. (And, yesterday there 925 new cases in Maryland) In Anne Arundel County, during those same time periods, the daily average of new cases increased from 29 to more than 56, a 90 percent jump. And, in zip code 21401, where the governor resides, the daily average of new cases went from less than two to more than six, a whopping 363 percent increase.
Hopefully, those numbers are an aberration, but given the recent trends across the country, they are, at the very least, worrisome. And, they’re more than enough reason for the governor to reverse his decision and mail out ballots to every Maryland voter while he still has time to correct the mistakes of the primary and do it right.
Al From is an adjunct professor at the Krieger School at Johns Hopkins University. He is founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and author of The New Democrats and the Return to Power, featured in the documentary film, Crashing the Party.