Maryland election officials struggle with staff and changes

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With less than 72 hours remaining until they roll out to polling places in Montgomery County, 30 students — from teenagers to seniors — studied the tangles of unfamiliar wires and touchscreens in front of them Saturday so that instructor Ron Taylor was giving instructions.

Election judges-in-training did their best to keep up. Usually they studied this months earlier. But little about this primary election has seemed normal to Maryland election workers, who are scrambling to adjust. a return to pre-pandemic in-person voting sites on a postponed primary date, in freshly redrawn legislative precincts, while managing the influx of mail-in ballots that the pandemic ushered in.

“This is probably the most trying election for all of my employees that I have had 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 queues in some places and see delays in processing ballots as election commissions rush to staff a full complement of around 1,500 polling stations across the state — back to pre-pandemic levels for the first time — with judges who will register voters, guide them through instructions for marking and scanning ballots, among other crucial tasks. Last week, Howard County was pulling from a reserve roster, Frederick County lost 100 poll workers and Prince George County officials recruited nearly 1,000 fewer poll workers than usual.

“We really think we can make it work,” said Alisha Alexander, Prince George’s County Elections Administrator. “But…we knew we were going to have some major challenges.”

The challenges, officials said, are largely rooted in a pandemic that continues to shape Maryland’s election. The coronavirus has transformed voter habits in 2020, with around 1.5 million people – accounting for almost half of the vote in the general election – voting by mail in November. Election officials have adapted, repurposing classrooms to accommodate ballot sorting equipment in Gaithersburg and rethinking how ballots are collected from ballot boxes in Frederick County.

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

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

“Right now we’re basically holding 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 polling centers, slowed a regular cycle of training. Some judges have refused to backtrack on coronavirus concerns as a new strain of the virus spreads, while others have abandoned their assignments after falling ill. Several officials said the three-week delay to Maryland’s primary election day, originally scheduled for June, meant many judges were unavailable.

“A lot of these people had vacations planned,” said Michael Ferrell, Republican Elections Chief Judge for Frederick County. “And all of a sudden they couldn’t be an election judge because we moved the primary into their vacation period. I think that had a huge effect.

The legal battle over Maryland’s redistricting process added another burden, as election commissions were forced to plan around redrawn district lines. Mickley, Howard County, was unable to confirm polling locations or assign election equipment and judges until its maps were finalized in May.

“All of this would have been done a year, a year and a half in advance,” Mickley said. “And you talk about 60 days. This is what we were up against. »

If that wasn’t enough, the increase in mail-in voting has also prompted the state to change the way Maryland ballots are designed and processed. Election administrators now have to sort through thousands of additional ballot “styles”, as they are called, added to ensure mail-in ballots can be counted in the totals in the voter’s home constituency. The state had hundreds of them. This year’s primary election, split by party and with many other down races split by different districts, will use 5,433.

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

Wagner added that a state law that prohibits counting mail-in ballots before voting ends will further tax workers and delay election results. Emergency rules allow election workers to count mail-in ballots at the start of the 2020 general election, but Governor Larry Hogan (R) in April vetoed a bill that would allow the practice to ‘go forward.

Election procedures may change cycle by cycle and are ultimately determined by the state legislature and state board of elections. Some election officials have suggested that amid changing voting habits and personnel issues, they would favor a return to some pandemic-era practices.

“There are so many different opportunities that voters have to vote right now,” Alexander said. “The opening of all polling stations on election day could possibly be a thing of the past. But unfortunately that’s not for me to determine.

For now, electoral commissions must focus on recruiting enough voters to organize Tuesday’s polls. Hogan announced in June that state employees who serve as election judges in this year’s primary or general elections will receive additional administrative leave hours. The state is also pushing recruiting efforts through nonprofits and Maryland’s university system, said Nikki Baines Charlson, Maryland’s deputy election administrator.

Still, some counties were training new election workers during the early voting period in a final push. The Montgomery County Board of Directors was to train 60 additional election workers on Sunday and 16 on Monday.

Kira Gandolfo, a rising junior at Boston University, took notes from Taylor on Saturday afternoon. After growing up in DC surrounded by political discussion each election day, Gandolfo, 21, thought she missed voting by mail in her first election year in 2020. She is excited to experience a in-person voting center this year.

“I see it as a fun way to participate in our democracy,” Gandolfo said. “Which is something these days that 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, they have energy,” he said. “Good to see that.”

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