WASHINGTON — Voters in Maryland and Ohio are testing pandemic-era democracy this week, holding the first elections almost entirely by mail since the nation locked itself down and more than a dozen states halted or postponed in-person voting to thwart the spread of COVID-19.
In Maryland, where voting Tuesday is limited to a special election to fill the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' heavily Democratic Baltimore-area seat, voting officials last week said the process was going smoothly, thanks to long hours and heroic efforts from staff members.
"We had to think of every minor detail about how we could do this, and the details keep changing," said Donna Thewes, president of the board of elections in Howard County, one of the three counties voting in Maryland.
But Tuesday's statewide primary in Ohio — rescheduled at the last minute in March — has been a scramble. Election boards have struggled to keep pace with an onslaught of mail-in ballots, while slower-than-expected mail delivery has threatened to upend the process completely.
"It's been kind of the opposite of smooth," said Mike Brickner, the Ohio state director of All Voting is Local, an organization aimed at voter access. "I've been joking with people that the last month or so has felt like the longest five years of my life."
The two elections are a test run of sorts for states across the country that opted for mail-in primaries or are urging voters to cast absentee ballots rather than risk the chaotic scenes that erupted in Wisconsin on April 7.
Officials in the Badger State forged ahead with its regularly scheduled election in spite of a statewide stay-at-home order. There were reports of lost or undelivered ballots, and some poll workers stayed away, leading to consolidated voting sites with long lines. At least 19 people reported COVID-19 infections contracted at the polls.
As of last Friday, 16 states and one territory had either pushed back their presidential primaries or switched to voting by mail with extended deadlines. Many of those moves have had bipartisan support in spite of fierce opposition from President Donald Trump and some Republicans who warn of voter fraud.
Election officials said they hope any issues that arise now will help them prepare for November, when the presidential election could see an unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast.
But while some states collect a high percentage of absentee ballots each cycle and have had years to perfect their system, Maryland and Ohio have not done this before.
They had only weeks to print and mail out hundreds out thousands of ballots in time for voters to return them with postmarks by Tuesday's Election Day.
They also had to devise plans that would allow voters who could not vote absentee to cast ballots in person.
In Maryland, Democratic former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Republican Kimberly Klacik are competing for the vacant 7th District seat created by Cummings' death in October.
Voter turnout is not expected to be high, and the outcome is not expected to be contested because of the district's strong Democratic lean. Cummings won 76% of the vote in 2018, for example.
Nevertheless, the election will be closely watched throughout the state for signs of what to expect for the statewide primary on June 2, which will also be held almost entirely by mail. The state mailed ballots to all "active voters," including voters who have cast ballots in one of the last three federal elections or who received mail at the addresses on their registration. Return postage on the ballots was paid.
By late last week, tens of thousands of ballots had already been counted. With no more than 10 polling officials allowed in the same room, the process was broadcast live over the internet to canvassers working from home. A few times, the broadcast was interrupted because of technical problems and all counting had to stop until the service could be restored, said Bruce Robinson, the president of the Baltimore County Board of Elections.
Robinson said the biggest test of the system will come on Election Day, the deadline for ballots to be postmarked or placed in one of three collection boxes that the state has had specially made, using a design similar to parking lot drop boxes for donated clothing.
The boxes are supposed to make it easier for people to drop off their ballots without exposing themselves to the virus, but limits on how many people can safely wait in lines mean polling places could quickly get overwhelmed.
"The greatest fear is that someone gets infected over voting," Robinson said. "Voting is really important, but it's not something that we in 2020 would consider as, 'I should be willing to die in order to vote.'"
Mfume campaign spokesman Anthony McCarthy said the process had been transparent so far.
"They are going out of their way to make sure that everyone's votes are counted," he said. "Everyone has been hyper-aware that they have to get it right."
Klacik's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In Ohio, though, the process has been more confusing.
State officials there postponed the March 17 primary in the early hours of that morning because of fears of the coronavirus pandemic. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, both Republicans, originally rescheduled the election for June 2, but the GOP-controlled General Assembly intervened, making the primary entirely vote-by-mail and setting election day for Tuesday.
Ballots must be postmarked by Monday or dropped off at county election boards by 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The most potentially divisive race — the Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — is settled, with Sanders bowing out April 8 and later endorsing Biden.
Unlike other states that require voters to cite illness, travel or some other justification to vote by absentee, Ohio has allowed voters for years to do so without giving a reason. Despite that, election officials had to shift course quickly to hold the primary entirely by mail.
The delayed election has also provided prolonged stress for the few contested congressional primaries.
In the 1st District near Cincinnati, Democrats Nikki Foster and Kate Schroder are battling for the nomination to challenge Republican Rep. Steve Chabot. Both had prepared for a March 17 faceoff.
"Who knew there was an overtime?" Schroder told CQ Roll Call.
oting absentee in most cases requires three steps, with voters requesting the ballots by mail, receiving them by mail and returning them by mail.
But the mail has been slow, with some voters complaining last week that they still had not received their ballots, and mail that is typically delivered in one to three days instead taking seven to nine.
Last week, LaRose wrote to the state's congressional delegation asking them to help urge the Postal Service to take steps to speed up the process.
Election boards will count ballots Tuesday, but will not certify the results until three weeks later in order to ensure that tardy ballots are counted.
Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said the transition has not been easy.
"It really is a mess," she said. "There's a lot of anxiety with trying to do this vote by mail."
The secretary of state partnered with groups across Ohio to make ballot applications accessible. Turcer said the grocery store Kroger has given them out, and she even heard of Ohioans putting the applications in Little Free Libraries.
Despite years of no-fault absentee voting in the state, Turcer said that until this year, "the vast majority of Ohioans cast their ballots in person on Election Day."
It appears that the transition will translate into lower turnout.
As of April 21, nearly 1.67 million Ohioans had requested vote-by-mail ballots for the primary, with 975,158 already voting. The prior low water mark was in 2012, when Ohioans cast 1.9 million primary ballots. In 2016, 3.3 million Ohioans voted in the 2016 presidential primary.
Turcer said it's hard to tell how much of the low turnout has been caused by the presidential nomination being settled and how much is caused by the swift change in how people vote.
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There have been other hiccups. A contractor sent out 18 absentee ballots with return envelopes addressed to a utility company in West Virginia. One county board of elections ran out of envelopes.
Despite the scramble, election officials say they are using the primary to prepare for an all-mail election in November.
"The coronavirus isn't just going to disappear," Turcer said. "We need to be planning to do the election in a way that protects people, and the best way to protect people is by having a robust vote-by-mail system."
She said she'd also like the idea of multiple locations where people could vote in person in a socially distanced manner for days before Election Day.
Jon Keeling, a spokesman for LaRose, said the office is preparing for that possibility.
"While we certainly hope we're able to conduct a standard in-person election, we're certainly going to be prepared and have already begun planning for any contingency in November," he said.
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