Mary­land is in a bet­ter po­si­tion than most states to switch to home vot­ing amid the virus cri­sis.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ERIC CORTELLESS­A The writer is the dig­i­tal edi­tor of Wash­ing­ton Monthly.

The novel coro­n­avirus has pro­foundly dis­rupted every­day life. Schools, restau­rants, bars and gyms are closed; travel is mostly banned from Europe; and peo­ple are hun­ker­ing down in iso­la­tion. More clo­sures and bans are cer­tain to come.

Now, the 2020 elec­tion is at risk. Polling places are acutely sus­cep­ti­ble to the spread­ing of the dis­ease, as vot­ers will stand close to­gether in lines and put their hands on door­knobs, pens and touch-screens. Ei­ther voter par­tic­i­pa­tion will plum­met or vot­ing cen­ters will be­come vec­tors of com­mu­nity trans­mis­sion. That’s why more and more states are em­brac­ing an idea that could mit­i­gate the prob­lem: let­ting peo­ple vote at home.

Mary­land should do the same. Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) an­nounced Tues­day that the state would move its pri­mary from April 28 to June 2. Mean­while, the State Board of Elec­tions is de­vis­ing a plan to safely con­duct the elec­tion. The an­swer, how­ever, will be on dis­play in the 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict, where a spe­cial elec­tion to fill the House seat of the late rep­re­sen­ta­tive Eli­jah E. Cum­mings (D) will be held us­ing ab­sen­tee votes only.

Uni­ver­sal vote-by-mail of­fers a clear so­lu­tion for how to run an elec­tion in a pan­demic. But it’s not so easy. Many states sim­ply don’t have the ca­pac­ity to im­ple­ment a wide­spread system change in a short pe­riod of time.

Mary­land, how­ever, is bet­ter po­si­tioned than most. It al­ready al­lows for “no-ex­cuse” ab­sen­tee vot­ing — mean­ing any voter can re­quest an ab­sen­tee bal­lot, re­gard­less of cir­cum­stance. State elec­tion of­fi­cials should im­me­di­ately mail ev­ery reg­is­tered voter an ab­sen­tee bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tion and vig­or­ously pro­mote the on­line ap­pli­ca­tion through so­cial me­dia. Mary­land should also pro­vide paid postage on re­turn en­velopes for ev­ery ab­sen­tee bal­lot it mails out.

It’s not clear where we will be with the coro­n­avirus out­break come the gen­eral elec­tion in Novem­ber, let alone the new pri­mary date in June. The state will need to quickly come up with a plan to switch to vote-at-home with­out run­ning into lo­gis­ti­cal night­mares. The good news is, an­other state al­ready shows the way.

Utah pro­vides a model for a smooth transition to the new system. In­stead of man­dat­ing a vote-at-home elec­tion in one fell swoop, Utah first gave its vot­ers the right to re­quest ab­sen­tee bal­lots no mat­ter what, as Mary­land has done, and then it al­lowed coun­ties to opt in to run­ning their elec­tions by mail once they were ready.

That proved highly ef­fec­tive. As Utah coun­ties tried out vote-at-home, elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors quickly found the system cheaper and eas­ier to run, vot­ers fell in love with the ease of mail­ing in their bal­lots, and turnout spiked dra­mat­i­cally. In fact, in 2016, the Utah coun­ties that en­acted vote-by-mail had a turnout rate more than five per­cent­age points higher than those that didn’t.

Grad­u­ally, the rest of the state came to re­al­ize that vote-at-home was a su­pe­rior system — but not be­cause any­one made them. Rather, they were given the free­dom to learn the ben­e­fits of vote-at-home on their own terms. This year, Utah will be­come the fourth state to run a statewide elec­tion en­tirely by vote-by-mail, after Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton and Colorado. (Ac­tu­ally, Utah will tie with Hawaii, which will also use the system statewide for the first time in Novem­ber.)

Mary­land has al­ready ex­per­i­mented with vote-at-home at the lo­cal level. Last fall, Rockville be­came the first city in the state to use the new method, con­duct­ing its mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion by mail. The re­sults speak for them­selves. Turnout nearly dou­bled from its mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion four years ear­lier. Roughly 58 per­cent of Rockville’s res­i­dents who voted by mail in that elec­tion had not par­tic­i­pated in the city’s past two mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions. In other words, by switch­ing to vote-at-home, Rockville suc­cess­fully turned non­vot­ers into vot­ers.

That has ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for Mary­land, where turnout is low. In 2018, for in­stance, only 54 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers showed up to the polls in the gen­eral elec­tion. In 2016, turnout was higher, as it usu­ally is in a pres­i­den­tial year, with about 72 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers cast­ing bal­lots. But that still means that 1 mil­lion el­i­gi­ble Mary­land vot­ers didn’t vote in the most re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. If the state doesn’t make dra­matic changes to ad­just to the coro­n­avirus out­break, that num­ber could be even higher in 2020.

For­tu­nately, a proven so­lu­tion is avail­able. Mary­land has enough time to roll out a vote-at-home system with­out run­ning into ma­jor hic­cups. It just needs to do what Utah did and start with an opt-in ap­proach at the county level.

It’s the surest way for Mary­land to save the 2020 elec­tion from a pan­demic — and it might just make Mary­land’s democ­racy work bet­ter long after the coro­n­avirus is gone.


A voter takes part in early vot­ing in Lan­dover in 2016.

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