Maryland election officials faced criticism Tuesday from lawmakers who questioned them about problems with the state's mostly mail-in primary, at a hearing to explore ways to make mail-in voting trouble free in November if it's required again by the virus outbreak.
Elections officials said they learned from an unprecedented experience and are working to address challenges with delivering ballots by mail in a timely manner. But lawmakers said they'd heard some of the excuses before and wanted to know who was accountable.
“I do know that members have a lot more questions," said Del. Anne Kaiser, a Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, during the hearing held online. “I'm sure people could nod their heads and say they're still nervous about the next election coming up in November, and I'm seeing the sorry smiles and the nods and people coming back to video to say that, so we have a lot of concerns. We want to continue working with you so we can restore everyone's confidence in those elections."
Michael Cogan, chairman of the state elections board, said the coronavirus pandemic forced elections officials to focus on safety at a time when there was a scarcity of personal protection equipment amid scary predictions of dire illnesses and death.
“At one point, we asked ourselves how many causalities we would sustain,” Cogan said.
Lawmakers said they understood the challenges, but they also expressed serious concerns about the depth of the problems.
In one case, a vendor told elections officials that it had mailed ballots out to voters, but elections officials did not find out that wasn't true until almost a week later, said Linda Lamone, the state elections administrator.
Lamone said less than a third of the ballots were sent to Baltimore at the time that the board was told, and that elections officials immediately started working with the U.S. Postal Service to develop a plan to get the ballots mailed as soon as possible.
“If we had known sooner, we would have done something sooner, but when we found out about it we acted on it, and we got the problem solved as best we could,” Lamone said.
Lamone said elections officials are working to build more accountability for vendors into the process. But Sen. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, said he hasn't heard anyone in senior leadership on the elections board accept responsibility.
“At what point does the senior leadership team of the State Board of Elections bear some point of responsibility in the delayed ballots?” McCray asked.
Lawmakers also criticized the state elections board for only allowing four in-person voting centers in each jurisdiction, though they added two more to Baltimore city after concerns were raised about ballots arriving on time. That resulted in long lines, especially in a city where a competitive mayoral primary was taking place with more than 20 candidates.
“If November 3 is primarily a vote-by-mail election, we recognize the need for more locations for voters to participate," Lamone said.
Problems were not limited to Baltimore. In Prince George's County, 90,000 voters received only the Spanish version of the instruction and list of vote centers, Lamone said.
Lawmakers also questioned a decision to remove election results from the state board's website after midnight with no explanation. Lamone said a printing error on the ballot for a local Baltimore race made elections staff question how extensive the problem was and whether other contests were affected by printing errors.
“We should not have done that," Lamone said. "We should have been quick to tell people what was going on, and we’ll make sure it never happens again.”
Cogan said the elections board will be focused on addressing the problems.
“The board will not avert their eyes from any shortfalls,” he said.