Inner city streets - Baltimore, MD
Credit: iStock

On April 28, Maryland held a special congressional election to replace the late Elijah Cummings, who died in October. That same day, Ohio ran its statewide primary after postponing it from March. Both of these elections were not only the first since the COVID-19 outbreak to be conducted almost entirely by mail; they were the first federal vote-at-home elections to be run east of the Mississippi.

In Maryland, that didn’t come without controversy. The outcome of the election itself was never in doubt. The winner, Kweisi Mfume, who held the seat from 1987 to 1996, was expected to defeat his Republican challenger in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, which encompasses roughly half of Baltimore City, parts of Baltimore County, and most of Howard County. What was in doubt was how well the new system would work, especially as Maryland election officials had to make the switch in such a short period of time.

A number of state leaders expressed concerns. “Most vote-by-mail only states are overwhelmingly white and took years, not months, to transition,” Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones wrote to Governor Larry Hogan in March. Even after the State Board of Elections revised its plan to include some in-person polling options for both the special election and the state’s June 2 presidential primary, skeptics worried that low-income Baltimore voters who don’t have permanent addresses could be disenfranchised—Maryland’s Seventh District includes some of the poorest sections of West Baltimore—and that the limited number of polling places would result in more people flocking to them, creating not only chaos but vectors of contagion.

I stopped by two of the three polling places open on Election Day to see if that happened. When I showed up, hardly anyone was there. It wasn’t clear, however, whether the low traffic meant the new system was a success or failure. Either voters embraced the vote-at-home option and it worked according to plan or, in fact, the system change resulted in fewer people exercising their right to vote. The answer would not be revealed for almost two weeks—as the state was accepting all ballots postmarked on Election Day, meaning it would be receiving and counting them for at least 10 days following the election.

Now, the votes are in and the results are impressive. Voter turnout overall increased 10 percentage points from February’s primary election, which was the more competitive race—a Democratic primary in a Democratic enclave—and was held the old-fashioned way. Voter participation jumped from 21.4 percent of eligible registered voters to roughly 32 percent. (That was also much higher than the last time a special election was held in that district in 1996, when only eight percent of voters showed up to the polls.) Even more encouraging, turnout spiked by nearly six percent in Baltimore City, going from 19 percent of eligible registered voters in February’s traditional election to 25 percent in April’s vote-by-mail election.

Voters throughout the district overwhelmingly voted at home, with 157,075 casting ballots by mail and only 1,009 people casting them at one of the three polling places.

The vote-at-home election was not without flaws and confusion. One voter I spoke with at the Baltimore City polling place said she had lost the return envelope to mail back her ballot. “I had a ballot and I went to the post office to mail it, and I had the wrong envelope,” Vivian Castain, 88, told me. “I went back home, and I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I came here.” Another voter said that she never received her ballot in the mail. “I didn’t get my ballot,” said Camille Alexander, 46. “So I came on out.” Indeed, roughly 10 percent of the ballots mailed to Baltimore City voters went undelivered, compared to three percent of the ballots that never reached voters in Baltimore and Howard counties. Election officials said that was mostly because some of the addresses on file were out of date.

And while vote by mail turned out more voters in the congressional district overall, including Baltimore City, the gap between the city and the surrounding whiter and richer counties widened. Baltimore County (different from the city) and Howard County each turned out 38 percent of its eligible registered voters. That amounts to a 13.5-percentage point gap in the turnout between Baltimore City and the suburbs, compared with a six-point gap in February.

Still, Maryland’s first experiment with a federal vote-by-mail election proved that the system can succeed at increasing turnout in a major black city with a large low-income population just as it has in majority white states and counties throughout the country. In 2018, for instance, a study commissioned by the Monthly found that Utah counties that enacted vote-by-mail in the 2016 presidential election had a turnout rate more than five percentage points higher than those that didn’t. Then, in the 2018 midterms, every vote-at-home state had a turnout rate at least 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

More impressively, Maryland election officials showed how to make a dramatic election reform under intense time pressure and the stress of a pandemic, albeit with a few hiccups.

According to Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, Maryland’s State Board of Elections followed her organization’s recommendations and scale plan and did the three main things it needed to do to make the change. First, it mailed every voter a ballot (in other recent vote-by-mail elections, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, voters received letters stating that they could apply for vote-by-mail ballots, an extra step that reduces overall turnout). Second, it kept a limited number of polling places open for those who needed them, such as people with disabilities and without access to mail. Third, Baltimore City elections officials bought more equipment, like high-speed vote counters, to ensure a seamless transition. And Maryland was already in a reasonably good place, as it switched to paper ballots years ago and already allowed for no-excuse absentee voting.

Those steps offered a stark contrast to Ohio, which made voters request a vote-at-home ballot by submitting an application. As a consequence, it experienced a low voter turnout—only 22.6 percent of its registered voters cast ballots. That was well below the state’s 2016 primary turnout rate of 43.6 percent. Of course, that race also had two competitive presidential primary campaigns.

“Maryland demystified the process and didn’t require voters to jump through hoops to get their ballots at home,” McReynolds told me. “Those extra steps are really what makes it challenging for the voters and for the election officials, because it adds time to the process, it adds data entry, it adds administrative burdens, and it adds costs. Then, by adding the in-person option for the voters who wanted it, they essentially did what the western states do really well: They created an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system.” What’s more, Maryland proved that if election officials simply mail every voter a ballot, the vast majority of voters will choose to vote at home, thereby making the few polling places that are open far less dangerous.

The success of Maryland’s vote-by-mail election is no guarantee that vote by mail will be successful everywhere come November. But it shows that if election officials make the right moves now, they can not only keep our elections from posing a public health risk but actually get more people to participate in them.

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a staff writer for Time magazine.