The Washington Post

Md. primaries pose challenges

Amid covid and staff shortages, officials struggle to manage the return to pre-pandemic voting sites

- BY DANIEL WU

With less than 72 hours remaining until they would deploy to polling places across Montgomery County, 30 students — from teens to senior citizens — studied the tangles of wires and unfamiliar touch screens in front of them on Saturday as instructor Ron Taylor rattled off directions.

The election judges in training tried their best to keep up. Usually, they’d be studying this months earlier. But little about this primary election has felt normal for Maryland’s election workers, who are scrambling to accommodat­e a return to pre-pandemic in-person polling sites on a reschedule­d primary date, in freshly redrawn legislativ­e districts, while managing the influx of mail-in ballots that the pandemic ushered in.

“This is probably the most taxing election on all of my employees that I’ve ever been through in 27 years,” said Guy Mickley, director of the Howard County Board of Elections. “To be quite frank, it’s probably best described as 90 days of hell.”

Officials said voters could face lines in some places and see delays in ballot processing as election boards race to staff a full complement of about 1,500 polling sites across the state — back to pre-pandemic levels for the

first time — with judges who will check in voters, guide them through instructio­ns for marking and scanning ballots, among other crucial tasks. As of last week, Howard County was drawing from a reserve list, Frederick County was down 100 poll workers and Prince George’s County officials had recruited almost 1,000 fewer poll workers than usual.

“We definitely think that we can make it work,” said Alisha Alexander, the elections administra­tor in Prince George’s County. “But … we knew that we were going to have some major challenges.”

The challenges, officials said, are largely rooted in a pandemic that continues to shape Maryland’s elections. The coronaviru­s transforme­d voters’ habits in 2020, with about 1.5 million people — accounting for nearly half the general election vote — casting ballots by mail in November. Elections officials adapted, repurposin­g classrooms to accommodat­e ballot sorting equipment in Gaithersbu­rg and rethinking how to collect ballots from drop boxes in Frederick County.

Before, an election director could handle collecting the relatively small number of absentee ballots alone. “Now you need a team of [poll workers from] two different parties and county vehicles … we have to have more staff,” said Barbara Wagner, elections director for the Frederick County Board of Elections.

This year, demand for mail-in ballots remains high. As a result, election boards have been forced to juggle the demands of both processing an increased volume of mail-in ballots and staffing a pre-pandemic number of in-person polling sites.

“Right now we’re conducting, in essence, two separate elections,” Alexander said.

And there are fewer people to do it. A decrease in demand for volunteers in 2020, when Maryland operated just 321 voting centers, slowed a regular cycle of training. Some judges declined to return over coronaviru­s concerns as a new strain of the virus spreads, while others dropped out of assignment­s after becoming ill. Several officials said the three-week delay to Maryland’s primary Election Day, originally scheduled in June, meant many judges were unavailabl­e.

“A lot of those people had vacations scheduled,” said Michael Ferrell, a Republican chief election judge in Frederick County. “And all of a sudden, they could not be an election judge because we moved the primary into their vacation time frame. I think that had a huge effect.”

The legal battle over Maryland’s redistrict­ing process added another burden as election boards were forced to plan around redrawn district lines. Mickley in Howard County wasn’t able to confirm poll locations or allocate equipment and election judges until his maps were finalized in May.

“All that stuff would have been done a year, a year and a half in advance,” Mickley said. “And you’re talking 60 days. That’s what we were facing.”

If that weren’t enough, the increase in voting by mail also prompted the state to change how Maryland ballots are designed and processed. Election administra­tors now face sorting through thousands more ballot “styles,” as they are known, added to ensure mail-in ballots can be counted toward totals in the voter’s home precinct. The state used to have hundreds. This year’s primary elections, split by party and with many more down-ballot races split by different districts, will use 5,433.

“It taxes our staff,” said Wagner, of Frederick, who now has hundreds of ballot styles to wrangle in her county.

Wagner added that a state law that prohibits counting mail-in ballots before voting concludes will tax workers further and delay election results. Emergency rules let election workers count mailin ballots early in the 2020 general election, but Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in April vetoed a bill that would allow the practice moving forward.

Election procedures can change cycle by cycle and are ultimately determined by the state legislatur­e and the state board of elections. Some election officials suggested that, amid changing voting patterns and staffing issues, they’d be in favor of returning to some pandemicer­a practices.

“There’s just so many different opportunit­ies that voters have to vote right now,” Alexander said. “Opening up all of the Election Day polling places may eventually be a thing of the past. But that’s unfortunat­ely not up to me to determine.”

For now, election boards must focus on recruiting enough poll workers to run the polls on Tuesday. Hogan announced in June that state employees who serve as election judges in either the primary or general election this year will receive additional administra­tive leave hours. The state is also pushing recruitmen­t efforts through nonprofits and the University System of Maryland, said Nikki Baines Charlson, Maryland deputy elections administra­tor.

Still, some counties were training new poll workers through the early voting period in a final push. Montgomery County’s board was scheduled to train 60 more poll workers on Sunday and 16 on Monday.

Taking notes from Taylor on Saturday afternoon was Kira Gandolfo, a rising junior at Boston University. After growing up in D.C. surrounded by talk of politics every Election Day, Gandolfo, 21, thought she missed out by voting by mail in her first election year in 2020. She’s excited to experience a voting center in person this year.

“I see this as a fun way to participat­e in our democracy,” Gandolfo said. “Which is something in this day and age I feel like I haven’t done yet.”

Taylor, 62, said he was happy to see more young people like Gandolfo in his classes.

“They can help out, they have energy,” he said. “It’s good to see that.”

“To be quite frank, it’s probably best described as 90 days of hell.” Guy Mickley, director of the Howard County Board of Elections

 ?? BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Ronald Taylor, right, takes volunteers through the voting procedures in a training session for election judges in Derwood, Md.
BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST Ronald Taylor, right, takes volunteers through the voting procedures in a training session for election judges in Derwood, Md.

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