Is voting by mail the best option for this November's election?

Is voting by mail the best option for this November's election?

This month, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced that the state would be voting in-person for the November 3 general election. Voters will be able to vote by mail only if they request an absentee ballot. This announcement came after lawmakers and advocacy groups called for more voting options, including a hybrid system of mail-in voting with polling places still available.

This has led to protests and backlash from residents worried about contracting the coronavirus and advocacy groups worried that in-person elections will affect voter turnout among vulnerable communities.

But June’s primary, which was largely vote-by-mail, had it’s own issues — including some voters receiving their ballots late or not at all. So what’s the best choice for this fall?

Produced by Richard Cunningham

Guests

  • Dominique Maria Bonessi Maryland Reporter, WAMU; @dbonessi
  • Joanne Antoine Executive Director, Common Cause MD; @Joanne_Antoine

Transcript

  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast she's a best-selling cookbook author and the host of an Emmy Award-winning talk show. It's Kojo for Kids with celebrity Chef Rachael Ray. But first Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced the state would open voting sites for in-person voting in November's general election. People can still vote by mail, but will have to request an absentee ballot.

  • 12:00:26

    KOJO NNAMDIResidents worried about their health and advocacy groups worried about voter turnout among vulnerable communities oppose the plan. How can Maryland residents exercise their civic responsibility in the safest way possible? What must the state do to ensure a smooth election in November? Joining us to discuss this today is Dominique Maria Bonessi, Maryland Reporter for WAMU. Dominique, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:00:51

    DOMINIQUE MARIA BONESSIThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:00:53

    NNAMDIAnd Joanne Antoine is Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland, a non-partisan organization focused on more representative government and making citizens voices heard. Joanne Antoine, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:05

    JOANNE ANTOINEThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:07

    NNAMDIDominique, can you explain in a little more detail the governor's plan for the general election in Maryland.

  • 12:01:14

    BONESSISure. So it's a bit complicated just because this pandemic has basically made it so that the governor has been determining how we will run the elections. That's how the primary was. That's how this general election will be. So he sided with the Republicans on the State Board of Elections, who said we would have an in-person election with a mail-in ballot option. And that basically means that that mail-in ballot option would be either you have to apply online or you have to request -- or you will be receiving an application for an absentee ballot in the mail, which then you have to fill out and then return to the State Board. So then you can get your absentee ballot. So it's kind of a two-step process here unlike the primary, which was just everyone got an absentee ballot in the mail and you could either turn that in to a drop-off ballot box or mail that back.

  • 12:02:02

    NNAMDILet's be clear about a couple of things. For the primary you just mentioned Maryland election officials mailed ballots to every registered voter. Will they be doing that again?

  • 12:02:11

    BONESSIThey will only be doing it for people, who fill out an application either online or via mail.

  • 12:02:18

    NNAMDIOkay. And if this person -- if somebody does not -- if they get that application online or if they get that application in the mail can they respond in the mail?

  • 12:02:32

    BONESSIThey can respond in the mail. The other option is bringing it directly to the State Board or your local Board of Elections itself. But you have to do it via, you know -- you have to do it with the application. There's no way of getting an absentee ballot without doing an application.

  • 12:02:51

    NNAMDIDid Hogan explain why he's opening polling sites?

  • 12:02:55

    BONESSISo he basically wanted to create as many options as possible. You know, we are going to be having pre-paid postage stamps and drop-off boxes so that people can, you know, access the vote as much possible. But he basically saw that he didn't want to have the same problems as we had with the absentee ballots during the primary. And he's thinking that this might be a way to reduce the issues that were faced during the primary election with counting the ballots and such.

  • 12:03:24

    NNAMDIHow have lawmakers in the state reacted to the notion of opening polling sites and his other plans?

  • 12:03:32

    BONESSIYeah. A lot of lawmakers -- a lot of the Democratic lawmakers basically are worried that this is going to create voter confusion. They're saying they're worried people are going to get sick. You know, opening all of the polling places in the state, they're worried about not having enough poll workers. They're worried about the mail-in ballot with the application is going to cost the state an extra $10.6 million. And people are very just worried that this is going to -- and then on top of all this, you know, we have the comptroller and the governor both calling for the State Board of Elections Administrator, her name is Linda Lamone, to resign. And this is the second time that people have called for her resignation.

  • 12:04:14

    NNAMDIJoanne Antoine, what do you think of Governor Hogan's plan to return to in-person voting?

  • 12:04:19

    ANTOINEYeah, his decision is not the right one, you know, I think for a number of reasons. I think the biggest ones were laid out by the local boards of elections. You know this idea that we're going to have 1600 polling locations open on Election Day and that we'll have enough poll workers to actually staff them just, again, is the biggest issue here I'd argue. You know, a lot of our former judges, poll workers are high risk, right? Usually they're over, you know, a certain age. They're retired. This is something that they've been, you know, doing for a really long time. And now unfortunately we're finding that many of these judges are letting us know that they won't be able to work that day.

  • 12:05:04

    ANTOINEI believe as of last week the Maryland Association of Election officials reported that they needed over 13,970 judges, you know, to cover these locations, and there's no way that we're going be able to fill all of the shifts that are needed just for those nine days of voting. I think outside of that -- you know, cost isn't as much an issue here. We believe that, you know, we should be making an investment in our elections and in our democracy, but the $5.6 million that's being spent to mail-out applications could instead be invested in things like robust voter education. Making sure, you know, every Maryland voter knows how to make their voice heard in the election. So a number of issues, I think voter confusion, you know, outside of actually staffing these locations being the biggest one.

  • 12:05:52

    NNAMDIHere now is Cece in Maryland. Cece, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:05:57

    CECEWell, thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I am one of those poll workers who will not be going anywhere near a polling place. I have been a judge for the last three elections. Enjoyed it, and I liked making my contribution. But I and several of my friends who are judges will not be going into the polls.

  • 12:06:20

    NNAMDIYou know, I always said that when I retired that would be my future employment. But given the pandemic circumstances, Joanne Antoine, is what Cece saying familiar to you at this point?

  • 12:06:30

    ANTOINEYeah. Unfortunately it is what we're hearing from, you know, individuals who have served as judges for decades. They're unwilling to put their health at risk. And they shouldn't have to, right? We shouldn't have to staff these many locations. We should have instead, you know, moved forward with the recommendations that were presented by advocates and the local boards.

  • 12:06:51

    NNAMDIDominique, there were some issues during the primary where there was a combination of a few in-person polling sites, but which was primarily mail-in. What went wrong there?

  • 12:07:01

    BONESSISo the biggest problem with the primary was that we went from a system where the precinct -- so the individual counties were tabulating -- were counting the votes originally. This is for a traditional election. But for the primary instead we had the State Board of Elections, all of the voting, all of the ballots went to the State Board of Elections and were counted at the State Board of Elections. So that caused a huge delay in the time it took for many districts including the Baltimore city mayoral race to actually hear back about their election.

  • 12:07:32

    BONESSIAnd at one point even, very late on, I believe that was Tuesday night of the election, on that night they had put up numbers for the Baltimore City race and another district in Baltimore City. And then all of a sudden a few hours it had been taken down. And then there were no votes put up. And then, you know, 12 hours later the next day there were votes put up again.

  • 12:07:55

    BONESSIAnd the State Board of Elections blamed the contractor on that one. But, again, there's a lot of people saying, this was a huge problem. Many Republicans even saying, you know, we had people who received absentee ballots who weren't alive. We had people who received absentee ballots who -- that didn't need to be receiving an absentee ballot or went to the wrong address. So there's a lot of sort of back and forth between, you know, both political sides as far what needs to be done for this election.

  • 12:08:29

    NNAMDIHere now is Christopher in Montgomery County. Christopher, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:35

    CHRISTOPHERI just wanted to say this coming November I entirely plan on voting in-person. The protests that are happening all around the United States people claim have not affected the COVID numbers. And so if people can protest and not affect it there's no reason that we shouldn't be able to go to polling centers and vote and do our civic duties and not risk getting sick or infecting others.

  • 12:09:01

    NNAMDITo which you would say, Joanne Antoine, what?

  • 12:09:05

    ANTOINEI would say obviously if a Maryland voter wants to vote in-person, again, we do support having in-person options. And encourage you to move forward with doing so. And if you go making sure that you are social distancing, wearing a mask and so forth. But, again, we can't compare voting to the protests and so forth that we've seen in the streets or even comparing it to people being -- people going to the grocery store to buy food, right?

  • 12:09:32

    ANTOINEAgain, we should be providing everyone with multiple options. So the same way that you're able to go in-person, someone who wants to vote safely from home should be able to do so. And that ballot should be automatically mailed to them.

  • 12:09:45

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Christopher. Joanne mail-in voting is the default in a few states. What are the advantages of all mail-in voting and what are some of the challenges?

  • 12:09:54

    ANTOINEI would say first, you know, we don't support all mail-in voting, right? We acknowledge that there are Maryland voters, who need to be able to go in-person for multiple reasons. You know, voters with disabilities, who need to use a ballot marking device, voters with language access issues and even that person who for whatever reason just doesn't receive their ballot in the mail, right? So mail would always have to be coupled with expanded in-person options.

  • 12:10:21

    ANTOINEBut even when we look at the primary and all of the mistakes that were made a lot of which were avoidable, we did see an increase in participation. You know, a lot of this is largely young voters. People who are voting for the first time in a jurisdiction like Baltimore City, and that's because the process was a lot easier. The ballot came to them. They didn't have to worry about whether or not they'd be able to get off work to make it to an early voting location on time. Transportation wasn't an issue. And even a stamp, no one had to worry about paying for a stamp in order to return their ballot. It was an easier process. And I'm hoping that is something that we can continue to explore moving forward in the state.

  • 12:11:02

    NNAMDIDominique, Jessica tweets, "What problems with the mail-on ballots are Hogan using to justify opening the polls?"

  • 12:11:10

    BONESSISo the problems that Hogan is citing is I believe similar to the problems that many Republicans on the State Board of Elections and Republican state lawmakers are saying, which is they're saying that mail-in application for absentee ballot would essentially reduce the number of I guess possibly fraudulent votes or people who maybe aren't alive that got an absentee ballot or reduce sort of the confusion between someone receiving it who should be voting and maybe someone who shouldn't be voting. At least that is what Governor Hogan has sort of provided so far. And he's saying it would help, you know, with overall just helping people not receive ballots, who shouldn't be receiving ballots.

  • 12:12:00

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back, we'll continue this conversation on voting in a pandemic and the plans for Maryland's November election. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Maryland's November election plans with Dominique Maria Bonessi, Maryland Reporter at WAMU. And Joanne Antoine, Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland and taking your calls. We got an email from Ben who says, "The State Board did not recommend an in-person election. This was the option that not one of the five member board voted for. They recommended vote centers and mail-in ballot applications. The board was clear about this, but Hogan is claiming that the board could not come to a conclusion. This line of propaganda must be corrected." Can you correct it, Joanne Antoine?

  • 12:13:04

    ANTOINEYeah, I mean, I think it's important to note that the appointed state board did not make recommendations for the general elections. You know, they actually only agreed to how they didn't want the election conducted. And, you know, that agreement was that they didn't want it conducted like normal where we'd have all of these precinct level locations open on Election Day because they understood that there would be a problem staffing all of these locations. But no official recommendation was made on how to move forward with conducting the election only how not to.

  • 12:13:36

    NNAMDISpeaking of how to staff these elections on his daily show Trevor Noah called for young people to staff polling places. He calls it a win-win as young people need jobs and polls need less vulnerable workers. How do you feel about that, Joanne Antoine?

  • 12:13:52

    ANTOINEYeah. I mean, we would support it. If it's a young person, you're registered to vote and you want to play a role in helping to secure our democracy, we support it. And we'd encourage you to go online and apply today. But again, it's important that we note that the health of poll workers is just as important as the health of voters. So if you don't feel safe, right, if you don't feel like you will be able to work if there is some concerns, because you're high risk that should be taken into consideration before you're applying, even though the state board and local boards will be providing you with PPE.

  • 12:14:28

    NNAMDIHere is Carol Anne in Bethesda, Maryland. Carol Anne, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:33

    CAROL ANNEYeah, hi, Kojo. I'd like your guest to expand on why the legislature can't do anything to change the way we're going about this. I'm worried. I'm a senior. My computer situation isn't the best if I have to deal with trying to print out something. There are other seniors, who may not have printers or computers that are working now and can't replace them. To me it's an added burden to the population -- a very important population that votes regularly. And so if they're worried about going out and being exposed at the election centers this makes it even more cumbersome. Can she speak about that?

  • 12:15:17

    NNAMDIWell, I'll ask Dominique Maria Bonessi first. What are you hearing on the ground? What do residents have to say about this?

  • 12:15:23

    BONESSISo residents -- when I talk to residents last week, who were protesting they said the exact same thing. They said it was burdensome to get onto the online system to register to vote. Also just to know some of the lawmakers. You know, I went on myself to see how I could register for an absentee ballot. And when you go into the website it's the same form for an absentee ballot as it is for registering to vote, which are two different things. Registering to vote is that you can finally vote when you're 18. And absentee ballots are, you know, when you get them in the mail. So that's been one confusion.

  • 12:15:58

    BONESSII know that some lawmakers said it was very convoluted that they're doing this and that it takes sort of a few clicks around their website. It needs to be more streamlined. It needs to be just an easier way for people to register -- for people to apply for ballots. And on top of that Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones -- mind you she says she wants the state legislature to do something. But the legislature actually isn't in session right now.

  • 12:16:23

    BONESSISo they don't have any real voting power right now to say something to the governor other than sending letters and saying that they're disappointed with the governor's decision. They really can't vote on anything right now for that. But on top of that Speaker of House Adrienne Jones has already put out a video on her Twitter explaining to people how to get through the mail-in application process online. If you go to her Twitter page she has the whole explanation there. But still it is a very convoluted process. If you don't have Twitter or you don't have -- you know, if you're not familiar with the internet, it could be very difficult for people.

  • 12:16:54

    NNAMDIHere's Mindy in Willards, Maryland. Mindy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:00

    MINDYYeah, Thanks, Kojo. And I'm glad you're addressing this issue. I've got concerns about it. I've voted in every election since I was 18 and I was the first group that got to vote as an 18 year old. So it's been a while. And I'm very concerned about making sure my vote counts in this election. I did register for an absentee ballot in Maryland. I went online some time ago and I got the primary and at the same time it let me register for the general election.

  • 12:17:30

    MINDYSince them Governor Hogan has issued this open -- anyway, now I'm concerned about my absentee ballot. When I send it in provided that I even get it, counting delay I want it to -- or not being able to vote in-person if for some reason it doesn't come to me, because I've heard that kind of an issue too. People don't get their absentee ballots and then they're not able to vote in the actual voting centers.

  • 12:18:00

    NNAMDIJoanne Antoine, what do you say to somebody like Mindy?

  • 12:18:02

    ANTOINEYeah. I would say if you made a request for a ballot during the primary election, that ballot should be coming to you as soon as they start to get mailed out. If you want an update I would encourage contacting your local board of elections just to make sure that request is on the record. And if that request is on a record you won't be mailed an application. You'll be automatically mailed your ballot once it goes out.

  • 12:18:28

    ANTOINENow I will say we know that there -- again, this is the second time that Maryland will be conducting a statewide election where we're mailing out ballots at this level. And, you know, there may be mistakes and glitches made along the way. So this is where, you know, once you've confirmed that your request has been submitted, once you hear that ballots are being mailed out, continuing to check on -- you know, check your mail to see if it's come in.

  • 12:18:51

    ANTOINEAnd if by the start of October you have not received it, following up with your local board to check on the status and to request another copy, and worst case scenario there will be in person options, but we don't want you to have to go in person if you don't need to. So this is where communication with your local board is critical if come the start of October you still have not received your ballot.

  • 12:19:13

    NNAMDIMiss Joanne Antoine, some voters have said shifting back to in-person voting is a form of voter suppression. Would you agree with that and if so why?

  • 12:19:21

    ANTOINEYeah. I agree. I think anytime -- I mean, when you look at Maryland, we've conducted three elections now since the -- we've been under the state of emergency, right? Including the special general election for the late Congressman Cummings, and we know that anytime, you know, we're constantly making changes like this without robust voter education, we're leaving voters out, right? They're receiving incorrect information. They're left thinking the election is being conducted like usual. And they wake up on Election Day and they're having trouble finding out where to go, what to do, how to access their ballot and so forth.

  • 12:19:56

    ANTOINESo, you know, at least moving forward with the election the way that it was conducted in the primary that ensures that those voters know what to do because they've gone through the process before. I'd also say, you know, the state board is looking at ways to reach people who, for example, are incarcerated, but there are possibly thousands of voters who are being even more so disenfranchised during this process.

  • 12:20:20

    ANTOINEAdvocate groups are no longer able to go behind the wall, you know, to get them the access to voter registration forms and absentee request forms like they typically would. And COVID has made that a lot worse. But again, any time voter confusion -- it leads to voters being at risk of being left out of the process completely.

  • 12:20:42

    NNAMDIDominique, we got an email from Laura. "Is there a difference between absentee ballots and mail-in ballots? If yes, why are we not doing mail-in again?

  • 12:20:51

    BONESSINo. There is no difference. Absentee and mail-in -- actually Maryland has officially changed. They're no longer called absentee ballots. They're actually officially called mail-in ballots under law. So there's no difference between the two of them.

  • 12:21:04

    NNAMDIDominique, have specific county executives or residents from specific counties called for an absentee ballot option and can they implement their own plans for their jurisdictions?

  • 12:21:14

    BONESSISo Prince George's and Montgomery counties the two counties hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, have requested mail-in ballots. And really the state board -- the way that it works in Maryland is that the state board is in charge of running the election and then the local boards of election sort of follow suit as to what the state board wants to do. So really the local boards of election can't determine, you know, whether or not they're going to do all mail-in or in-person. It is really up to the state board that makes those major decisions.

  • 12:21:48

    NNAMDIAnd finally this question for you, Dominique. Why has the state -- have there been calls for the state elections administrator to resign?

  • 12:21:58

    BONESSIYeah. So Linda Lamone is the State Elections Administrator as I mentioned earlier. Basically one of the first Board of Public Works meetings right after the June primary, they basically said that, you know, the primary had so many issues between ballots not getting to the right places and such. And they're basically saying, you know, this needs -- they didn't like that Linda Lamone was still steering it. This also happened two years back.

  • 12:22:27

    NNAMDIAnd so that calls for her resignation now. I'm afraid we're out of time. Dominique Maria Bonessi, Joanne Antoine, thank you both for joining us. Next up, Kojo for Kids with Rachael Ray. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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