ANNAPOLIS – Advocates of election by mail learned their lesson last year and are taking the tortoise track during the current General Assembly session.
Del. Michael A. Crumlin, a Democrat, testified Wednesday before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee on behalf of his bill to allow Maryland localities to conduct elections by mail. It is a go-slow version of his 1996 legislation, which would have required all elections to be conducted by mail and was killed by the committee.
“Last year’s bill went too far too fast,” Crumlin told the committee.
Crumlin had company in Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, D-Prince George’s. Howard pressed two bills — one statewide, the other limited to her county, but both erasing restrictions on absentee ballots and giving voters the option to mail ballots or vote at the polls. Last year, Howard also shot for statewide elections by mail.
“Mail-in ballots are used to increase voter turnout and lower costs,” Howard said.
But opponents fear such elections will increase voter fraud and create financial hardship on local election boards, especially ones that aren’t computerized.
“A lot of things need to be addressed before we move into this process,” said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.
The State Administrative Board of Election Laws, which would be instrumental in implementing mail-in ballot regulations, took no position on the bills.
Several other states and cities — including Georgia, Detroit and Florida – are considering bills to allow mail-in voting this year.
In other places, the practice is well established. California has been using some type of election by mail since the 1960s, and Oregon has for certain elections since the 1970s, Crumlin said. Proponents say the process is especially useful in special elections, such as school bond issues.
Using mail-in ballots, Oregon had a 66 percent voter turnout for the January 1996 special election to replace former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood. In May 1994, a poll election in Oregon turned out 38.3 percent of voters, but a mail-in election the following year generated a 43.7 percent turnout.
According to analysis by the Maryland Department of Fiscal Services, Crumlin’s bill wouldn’t affect the state, but it would have varying affects on different counties.
For example, Calvert County advises that a mail-in election would cost the same as a precinct election, $68,000; Howard County estimates that it would save $22,000 and Prince George’s County estimates it would cost an additional $1.5 million in its first year.
To limit fraud, Crumlin’s bill would prohibit voting at the polls in precincts where mail-in ballots are in use. The local election board would send each registered voter a ballot not earlier than the 20th day before the election and not after the 24th day before the election.
His bill has a Senate companion sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s. Miller’s bill was debated in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs committee Feb. 6, Crumlin said.
Senate committee members suggested using two counties as pilot programs, rather than permitting all the state’s municipalities to conduct elections by mail. Committee members also suggested establishing a task force to study the issue, Crumlin.
But he disagreed with the task force idea.
“Seventeen other states have been doing this for almost 40 years …. I think SABEL [the State Administrative Board of Elections Laws] can write regulations that will work,” Crumlin said. “The process of taking off work, finding a baby sitter, standing in long lines at your church, school or whatever building is archaic.” -30-