Hogan establishes redistricting reform commission

By DARRYL KINSEY JR. 

BOWIE, Md. — In the latest effort to resolve a gerrymandering issue in the state, Gov. Larry Hogan, R, this month announced the formation of the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Hogan’s executive order comes 18 months after the Supreme Court declared that federal courts had no jurisdiction in resolving the issue of partisan redistricting. In a 5-4 court decision, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the burden of adjusting the redistricting process fell on the legislative branch. The governor said he had tried to introduce a Redistricting Reform Act five times, but none of the bills gained traction in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. 


The commission would be in charge of redrawing legislative maps that have been the subject of criticism from advocates and the challenge in the Supreme Court. The nine-member panel will consist of three Democrats, three Republicans and three  independent voters. Members of the commission must be registered Maryland voters who have either registered for the same party or remained unaffiliated for at least three years. Lobbyists, political employees or representatives for office in the General Assembly or Congress are ineligible. 


Three members who will serve as co-chairs on the committee are:

Judge Alexander Williams, a registered Democrat, served as a district court judge in Maryland for 10 years.


Dr. Kathleen Hetherington, an independent voter with a doctorate in education, is the current president of Howard Community College. 

Walter Olson, a registered Republican and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, authored two studies on gerrymandering in Maryland.


Co-chairs will have final say on who occupies the remaining six seats on the panel.

Once chosen, the commission will come up with redistricting maps with respect to population and geographical borders. 
Redistricting maps are redrawn and voted on by the General Assembly after each census. Common Cause Maryland, a redistricting reform advocacy group, said that the commission “helps our collective efforts to ensure Maryland’s line-drawing process is open and transparent.” 


The commission’s makeup and its duties were drawn from recommendations of a bipartisan 11-member Redistricting Reform Commission the governor ordered in August of 2015. The commission, of which Olson and Williams were co-chairs, released a 62-page report on the issue in November of that year. The report found that legislatures in charge of redistricting had “an incentive to produce redistricting maps that favor their particular party.”


Even state houses with split-party control face issues, according to the commission, as both parties tend to favor maps that protect their current members. Maryland has seven Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives compared to one Republican, despite Democrats outpacing Republicans by a ratio of 2-to-1.

Hogan made redistricting reform one of his talking points during his 2014 campaign just two years after maps were redrawn by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, D, after the 2010 Census. The maps drew voters from Democratic strongholds in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as Baltimore into more traditionally Republican districts.  That resulted in heavily edited districts, including what the Washington Post called “The most bizarrely gerrymandered district,” Maryland’s third.

District three, which extends from north of Baltimore out to Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, earned the dubious title of the nation’s most gerrymandered district by the New Republic. District three’s makeup was an example of how “a healthy and strong two-party system” was impossible in Maryland according to Hogan.

While Hogan championed the commission as a way to curtail partisan map redistricting, its ability to do so is ambiguous.
Any new maps proposed by the redistricting commission have to be approved by the General Assembly before they take effect. Redrawn maps that provide equity to both parties could still be rejected by the Democratic supermajority in Annapolis.  
Some have criticized the governor’s efforts on redistricting as the state continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and a sluggish vaccine rollout. 


“It feels like political theatrics at a time where Marylanders are struggling in ways that are unimaginable,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore said during a Jan 15 press conference. 


A date for the first meeting of the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission has not yet been set. 

Supreme Court hears case affecting Maryland LGBTQ

Former College Park City Councilmember PJ Brennan and his husband, Nick, adopted their sons Benji, 3, and Kayden, 16 months (not pictured), through a secular Maryland agency. (Photo courtesy of Documentary Associates). 

By Philip Van Slooten
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which questions whether religious-based foster care agencies that choose not to work with same-sex parents are exempt from nondiscrimination laws. 

Maryland’s Catholic Charities of Baltimore no longer provides foster or adoption services, but FreeState Justice, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, fears other social services could be affected by a religious-exemption ruling. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, Justice Stephen Breyer asked Lori H. Windham, a lawyer for the petitioners, if Catholic Social Services could just evaluate a couple “irrespective of same or different sex,” but she said it would be “essentially a validation of the relationships in the home” and against the organization’s “deeply held religious beliefs” regarding same-sex marriages. 

In 2018, the City of Philadelphia prohibited Catholic Social Services from placing children in foster homes because it learned through a Philadelphia Inquirer article that the organization could refuse same-sex couples for religious reasons. 

While Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed out Catholic Social Services had not actually turned away any same-sex parents, the city’s attorneys stated the potential rejection from an organization contracting with the city was still a concern. 

Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Bush, both of whom fostered children through Catholic Social Services, sued the city for limiting their choice of provider based on religious beliefs.

Justices listened via phone conference as a continuing COVID-19 precaution while Windham, and Department of Justice attorney Hashim M. Mooppan, argued Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination ordinance violated her clients’ right to freely exercise their religious beliefs.

Attorneys Neal K. Katyal and Jeffrey L. Fisher argued the city’s position that its nondiscrimination ordinance was neutrally applied and did not single out Catholic Social Services based on their religious beliefs. 

“Ruling (for religious exemptions) would insert federal courts into contracting decisions in all 50 states and imperil government services in many spheres,” Katyal told justices Wednesday. “It means (government contractors) could discriminate against LGBT kids or categorically against foster parents for gender or religion.”

Mark Graber, a University of Maryland law professor and a leading scholar of constitutional law and politics, said this case asks whether religious agencies that contract with the government, or that receive public funds for public services, can be exempted from nondiscrimination laws. 

He said that answer has to be no. 

“Let’s say the state runs a fire department,” Graber told Capital News Service on Thursday, “If private people want to contract with the city and run their own fire department, when there’s a fire you have to put it out regardless of if that house is of a black person, a gay person and so forth. The state is allowed to license a behavior and attach nondiscriminatory conditions to a license. So, if you want to participate in the state adoption program, you have to play by the state rules.”

Maryland’s adoption program is managed at the state level by the Maryland Department of Human Services. It is a foster-to-adopt program where families are selected as “foster / adoptive homes,” according to its website.  

Maryland contracts with private religious and secular agencies, such as Lutheran Social Services and Adoptions Together. Both work with same-sex couples. 

Former College Park, Maryland, City Councilmember PJ Brennan and his husband, Nick, adopted Benji, 3, and Kayden, 16 months, through Adoptions Together, which has locations in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. 

“One of the reasons we stuck with Adoptions Together is because of their ethical approach to adoption,” PJ Brennan told Capital News Service on Monday. “They make sure they are working with and counseling the birth family and not coercing them into a decision they don’t want to make.”

Nick Brennan added that Benji’s birth mother chose them because they were a gay couple. This was to honor her sister who also was gay and wanted children but passed away before having them. 

“This was a way to honor her memory,” Nick said, adding the birth mother told them, “Everyone is entitled to have a family, if they want a family.”

Catholic Charities of Baltimore is a faith-based agency that no longer provides foster or adoption services in Maryland, but Christine Collins, the director of communications, said their agency continues to manage over 80 other social service programs throughout the state. 

These include services for the homeless, food-insecure, elderly or disabled, and those seeking help with immigration or government benefits. 

“You need what you need,” Collins said. “And we will try our best to give you the service that you need.”

However, FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster told Capital News Service a Supreme Court ruling supporting a religious exemption to nondiscrimination mandates could affect more than just foster-care services. 

“I think for me this is a troubling court case because the stakes are pretty broad,” he said. “Taxpayer-funded services (like foster care) should not discriminate. The exemption starts with providing foster care services, but there are other public services provided through religious programs.”  

LaMaster said he was concerned about the effect on other private agencies providing government-funded services. 

“If other agencies can opt out of nondiscrimination guidelines, this sets a challenging precedent for a whole swath of people in the state,” he said, indicating other protected groups could face discrimination due to exemptions as well.

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in her first week hearing cases, asked a similar question during the Fulton hearing. 

“What if there was an agency who believed that interracial marriage was an offense against God and, therefore, objected to certifying interracial couples as foster families?” she asked Catholic Social Services’ attorney. “Would they be entitled to an exemption?”

Windham responded no, but argued the government viewed each type of discrimination differently. 

Graber disagreed, stating the government sets nondiscrimination rules for contracting agencies to follow. 

“No one is saying, ‘CSS, you have to participate in this program,’” he said. “But once you participate, though, there are rules you must follow.”

Currently, FreeState Justice is working with state lawmakers to clarify these rules for Maryland, particularly as they pertain to vulnerable LGBT youth.

LaMaster said a proposed Youth and Families Protection Act, which is still in a very early drafting stage, seeks to “bolster gaps in Maryland’s code around human services”. 

“Regardless of how (this case) goes,” he said. “There may be future similar court cases around religious exemptions for taxpayer-funded services. It’s really important at a state level that we’ve done the work so even if there is a federal policy change, Maryland policy does not and remains supportive of the LGBTQ community.”

The Rev. Tim Johnson of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in College Park, where the Brennans are active members, said he appreciates and can sympathize with the difficult position Catholic Social Services may have found itself in with this Supreme Court case. 

“I can’t think of any population that is more vulnerable as children who don’t have families,” Johnson said. “That is as vulnerable as it gets. I commend Catholic Charities for their work on behalf of children and I believe in all my heart they are trying to do what is right and fulfill their mission. Where it becomes a challenge is when they are trying to fill that mission and uphold their social teaching around marriage and family.”

PJ and Nick Brennan also support the right of religious organizations to provide services in accordance with their beliefs, but like Johnson, they drew the line when it came to agencies that receive public funds. 

“We’re not saying we’re going to shut down Catholic Charities,” Nick said. “We’re just saying use your own money if you want to discriminate.”

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., is elected 46th president of the United States

Photo: Joe Biden


By KAANITA IYER, JACOB ROUSSEAU, GRACIE TODD, LUCIANA PEREZ-URIBE, ANEURIN CANHAM-CLYNE AND MICHELLE SIEGEL Capital News Service


WASHINGTON — After more than three days of uncertainty in a closely contested race, former Vice President Joe Biden has defeated President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States

California Sen. Kamala Harris also made history, as she will become the first woman — and first woman of color — to hold the vice-presidency. She is of Jamaican and Indian descent.

“America, I’m honored that you have chosen me to lead our great country,” Biden tweeted just before noon Saturday. “The work ahead of us will be hard, but I promise you this: I will be a president for all Americans – whether you voted for me or not. I will keep the faith that you have placed in me.”

After four days of waiting, news organizations declared Biden the winner late Saturday morning after new returns from his native state of Pennsylvania made it clear he would take the battleground and its 20 Electoral College votes, giving him 3 votes more than needed to make him president.

The president-elect, who turns 78 on Nov. 20, began his political career with narrow victories in Delaware and election to the United States Senate in 1972 weeks before he turned 30. He twice previously ran unsuccessfully for the presidency – in 1988 (ended after just three and a half months in 1987) and again in 2008. He will finally make it to the White House with another close win.

He amassed more votes than any other presidential candidate in American history, breaking the record that President Barack Obama set in 2008.

Harris’s ascension to the vice presidency will be “really wonderful for the United States,” said William Spriggs, an economics professor at the Californian’s alma mater, Howard University, an historically black institution in Washington.

“I think this will start a legacy that Americans will finally get used to the idea of women in leadership, and accept her role as setting the mark and paving a path for other women to ascend to top leadership,” Spriggs told Capital News Service.

Harris, 56, is a challenger-turned-ally of Biden. A rising progressive star, she attacked him during the primary for his opposition to busing to desegregate schools. She also set herself apart from the political veteran by embracing the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-All, as well as calling for a ban on fracking.

Harris is expected to bring a more progressive perspective to the moderate president-elect’s agenda.

With the coronavirus pandemic raging across the nation, it appears unlikely that Biden and Harris would celebrate the start of their administration in the traditional manner that would call for an oath-taking ceremony Jan. 20 on the West Front of the United States Capitol, witnessed by massive crowds stretching for blocks on the National Mall.

The inauguration plans are to come, but Biden and Harris already have activated a website for the transition and are assembling a transition team. As a symbol of the coming change in power, the United States Secret Service earlier in the week dispatched additional agents to the Biden home in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Federal Aviation Administration designed the skies above that home as restricted airspace.

Despite the pandemic — or many experts believe because of the various voting methods it made necessary — the total turnout for this election is expected to break a 120-year-old record.

Michael Hanmer, research director for the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civil Engagement, said “motivational factors (to vote) were just more present” in this election, though voting law changes to accommodate the pandemic also played a part.
The small margin of victory, combined with the overwhelming use of mail-in ballots, appeared to infuriate the president, as he continued to falsely claim that he was cheated out of reelection. Some of his Republican allies made similar unfounded attacks, while others in the GOP – mainly those out of office – denounced Trump’s accusations as dangerous and irresponsible.

Trump had repeatedly questioned the legality of mail-in ballots and discouraged his supporters from voting by mail. As a result, mail-in ballots in many states with little history of using that voting method leaned very heavily to Biden.

Many states counted mail-in ballots after tabulating Election Day ballots cast in-person, initially generating the appearance of a Republican surge in some of the battleground states. But the counting of the mail-in ballots – a slow process – began producing a Democratic counter-wave that materialized as early as Wednesday.

Multiple networks — including ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and CBS — cut away almost at the start of a Trump speech in the White House Thursday night when the president leveled baseless and false claims about the vote counts.

“If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us,” Trump claimed.

No credible evidence of fraud has been produced, according to the Associated Press.

The president’s claims of cheating were “especially disconcerting because the dangers of Trump’s rhetoric will outlive his time in the office,” Peter Ubertaccio, dean of arts and sciences at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, told CNS.

Millions of people believe Trump’s accusations of voter fraud despite no neutral observers stepping in to raise concerns about legitimacy, he said. This will, in turn, lead many citizens to believe that this election was stolen from Trump, Ubertaccio added.

“On the list of dangerous things Donald Trump has done, this ranks pretty highly — he has basically called American elections illegitimate because they didn’t go his way,” Ubertaccio said.

While counting of votes continued, the Trump campaign filed lawsuits to stop the counts in Michigan, Georgia — where federal judges rejected them — and Pennsylvania.

Caleb Jackson, a voting rights attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, called the lawsuits “absolutely frivolous and meritless” that “will not get them anywhere and not have an impact on the election.”

In states where mail-in ballots seemed to be benefitting Trump a bit more, such as Arizona, the president and his allies urged election officials to count every vote.

“Of course it’s contradictory,” Jackson said. “There’s nothing legally that bars them from making those arguments, but, you know, professionally and ethically…it goes against what you swear to do as an attorney.”

In states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, automatic recounts will be generated if the margins are 0.5% or less. But recounts also can be requested by Trump’s team and were expected.

Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has announced Friday that there will be a recount in his state.

But Biden’s victory, especially given the closeness of this race, does not indicate that it would necessarily open the way for significant policy changes, Ubertaccio said.

“We are a 50/50 country, and partisans on both sides have an active dislike of the folks on the other side,” said Ubertaccio. “Even landslide victories don’t by themselves indicate long-term changes to American politics.”

If Republicans retain control of the Senate, which is not yet clear, Biden would have a hard time getting legislation to pass without the acquiescence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

While it was Biden who often negotiated with McConnell during the Obama years over budget deals and other legislation – both drawing on their long relationship with each other – the new president would be dealing with very different political dynamics after a hard-fought, divisive election.

With Senate races waiting to be called, the current makeup is even with 48 members projected to be on each side of the aisle, and two runoff elections in Georgia in January present the Democrats with an opportunity to take control of the chamber.

Even so, it was the stark contrast between Biden’s progressive agenda and Trump administration policies that “helped drive turnout,” Hanmer said.

“Most people had a pretty good understanding of what they would get with Donald Trump if he were to win, and what they would get from Joe Biden if he were to win,” he added.

Congressman, Actress, and Federal Economist Among Maryland’s Top Donors

By GRACIE TODD, Capital News Service

Three Maryland couples – including Rep. David Trone and his wife, June – contributed more to federal campaigns this cycle than all the other 1.7 million reported contributions under $15 in the state combined, illustrating one way, according to some analysts, in which the wealthy have outsized political influence. 

The Trones, along with Stewart and Sandra Bainum of Howard County and Chani and Steven Laufer of Montgomery County, have given a combined total of over $8.3 million to House, Senate and presidential elections since the start of 2019, almost entirely to Democratic committees, according to Federal Election Commission records current through Oct 14. 

Those six people accounted for $4.5 million in donations to former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and supporting groups. They gave around $28,000 to congressional candidates in Maryland, and at least $900,000 to congressional candidates in 29 other states.

Those candidates included incumbent Democratic Reps. Katie Porter of California; Elissa Slotkin of Michigan; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California; and Democratic Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama and Gary Peters of Michigan. 

Trone represents Maryland’s Sixth District in the House and co-owns Total Wine & More, an alcohol retail chain. He gave over $1.4 million to federal races. June gave over $830,000. 

Stewart Bainum gave over $3.2 million. He is a former member of the Maryland General Assembly, serving in both the House and Senate. He unsuccessfully campaigned for Congress twice in the 1980s and considered a run for governor in the 1990s. Bainum leads Choice Hotels International, which has a presence in over 40 countries and was founded by his father. His wife Sandra, who has produced a full-length film and acted on Broadway, gave over $1.1 million. 

Chani and Steven Laufer gave over $960,000 and $730,000, respectively. Chani is a former lawyer and journalist, and Steven is an economist at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Only the Laufers gave any money to Republican committees, each contributing the maximum amount permitted by an individual to a candidate in a single election: $2,800, to Jeff Van Drew, a New Jersey GOP congressman running for reelection.

Michael J. Wallace of Annapolis appeared to be the largest Republican-leaning donor, giving over $340,000, including over $130,000 to committees supporting President Donald Trump and over $33,000 to congressional candidates in 10 states outside of Maryland, FEC records show. Wallace advises the president on homeland security as a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council. 

The Trones, Bainums, Laufers and Wallace did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Donors giving over $100,000 in an election cycle are part of an elite group, representing less than 0.00001% of the United States population, but accounting for over one-fifth of all contributions to federal elections, according to figures released by the Center for Responsive Politics in late September. 

The candidate who raises the most wins roughly 9 out of 10 times in House elections and roughly 8 out of 10 times in Senate elections, according to the center, which is nonpartisan. In 2016, Trump was the first presidential candidate since 1976 to win against a candidate with a bigger budget.

Wealthy donors may have a greater impact on policy-making, along with campaign contributions, according to research from Princeton University, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, the University of Utah, and other organizations. 

“The evidence shows that wealthy individuals have more political influence,” Tabatha Abu El-Haj, law professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, told Capital News Service, adding “how much of that is a product of donations is less clear.” 

Abu El-Haj said the influence of wealthy donors can only sometimes be directly traced to their contributions. More often, she said it is a consequence of an increasingly wealthy group of politicians who listen to and interact with other wealthy individuals. 

“It’s not the money that gets (donors) the policy response, it’s the fact that their phone call is going to be picked up by the elected officials,” Abu El-Haj said. “Because they gave in the last election, and because they’ve been at the same parties.”

As the cost of campaigning increases nearly every cycle, Abu El-Haj said, those with elite backgrounds – disproportionately wealthy, white and often educated at top law schools – are more likely to be elected because these candidates tend to “have an initial social network that’s going to bring enough money.”

Over half of lawmakers in Congress are millionaires, according to a Center for Responsive Politics report last spring. The richest member may be Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Georgia, who is halfway to amassing $1 billion. There has not been a single non-millionaire president since Harry S. Truman in 1953.

Charlie Cooper, president of Get Money Out of Maryland, a volunteer group that opposes the influence of big donors in politics, said for wealthy donors, “campaign contributions are chump change.” 

“They’re doing that for access,” Cooper said, adding that this comes with a tradeoff: when wealthy people have greater access to politicians, politicians “can only pay so much attention to their constituents.” 

Cooper and the group he founded in Baltimore advocate for an amendment to the United States Constitution that would require regulation of money in politics “for the sake of political equality.” 

The amendment, proposed in 2019 by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, would effectively overturn Citizens United, a controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling decided by a 5-4 vote that limiting the amount of money that corporations and other outside groups can spend on elections threatens the First Amendment right to free speech.

“When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s majority. “This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”  

Then-President Barack Obama, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, then-Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders all expressed opposition to the court’s decision. Obama has said the Citizens United ruling “has caused real harm to our democracy.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has defended removing limits on corporations and outside groups, saying the court decision “leveled the playing field for corporate America and union America” to express their ideas in the same way media organizations do before elections.

But with unlimited corporation and outside group spending, “we feel that they’re drowning out the voices of the people,” Cooper said. “The policies show very clearly that the interest of the average working person just is not taken into account at all.” 

David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, said “the preferences of wealthy donors get heard more in Washington and in state legislatures than the average American.” 

Primo’s research, presented in a book he recently co-authored, “Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters,” warns that campaign finance reform alone would not restore the public’s trust in government, as the reasons for that distrust are far deeper and broader.

Still, small donors can benefit candidates in ways their wealthier counterparts can’t. 

This year, presidential candidates in the Democratic primary required a certain amount of small donations to qualify for debates. Small donations also “send a signal that a candidate has a broad base of support,” Primo said. 

Julián Pérez-García, a senior at University of Maryland studying government and spanish who gave $8 to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign last winter, says he doesn’t expect his small contributions to have much impact, but the inequalities in campaign finance are “discouraging, disheartening.”

“We need to change how campaigns are financed, because the fact that it’s even necessary to give that much money to a campaign is unfortunate,” Pérez-García said. 

Pérez-García said he plans to go into government to “affect change from within,” adding that it’s important to be politically active outside of donating. Why did Pérez-García give? “I liked the candidate,” he said. “I think ultimately that’s why anyone should donate, because they like the candidate

How to cast your vote in Maryland, D.C. or Virginia before – or on – Nov. 3

By RACHEL CLAIR, KAANITA IYER and JACOB ROUSSEAU – Capital News Service

With confusion looming over voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, several states have announced their plans to make it easier to vote in the upcoming general and local elections on Nov. 3. 

The revamped voting process includes ballots sent via mail and accessible drop box locations for those who wish to avoid in-person voting, as well as early voting centers to ease expected delays.  

Capital News Service has assembled the following guide on voter registration, voting by mail, and early and Election Day voting in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. 

Maryland

There are lots of ways to vote in Maryland. Let’s break down the steps for each. 

First, you must be registered to vote. Contact your local or state Board of Elections to confirm your address. You may register online or by mail. The deadline is Oct. 13. For more information: https://voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/OnlineVoterRegistration/InstructionsStep1

If you do not want to go to a polling place in person on or before Election Day, the first step is to request a ballot. 

The Board of Elections is urging Marylanders to vote through mail-in ballots — formerly known as absentee ballots — due to the coronavirus pandemic. Maryland’s mail-in process is two steps: A ballot request form; and then the ballot. 

Maryland voters should have received, by mid-September, mail-in voting applications in the mail sent to their home addresses. Return this application to the Board of Elections to have a ballot sent to you. Here is a video explaining the process: https://youtu.be/X3SEja6u6xg

Voters who did not receive a mail-in voting application in the mail can request one on the Maryland Board of Elections website:https://voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/onlinemailinrequest/InstructionsStep1.

Mail-in voting applications, whether sent online or through the mail, must be returned by Oct. 20. 

Once your application for a mail-in ballot has been processed, you may pick up a ballot at some local boards of elections; you may print your ballot from an email link sent to you; or it can be mailed or faxed to you. 

Ballots can be sent via the U.S. Postal Service, hand delivered to a local board of elections or polling place, or put in official drop boxes. Ballots may be marked online, but may not be emailed, faxed or cast online. 

Voters who choose to mail-in their votes through the Postal Service must have them postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by 10 a.m. Nov. 13, in order to be counted. Ballots must be filled out in black ink and the envelope (but not the ballot) should be signed. 

The Board of Elections is installing around 280 boxes in public places around the state. Here is a list of locations: https://elections.maryland.gov/elections/2020/PG20_Drop%20Box%20Locations.pdf 

The deadline to drop ballots in one of these boxes is 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Maryland residents may vote in person at early voting locations or, on Election Day, at polling places. 

Early voting will run from Monday, Oct. 26, to Monday, Nov. 2. Voters must vote in their home county. There are at least 89 early-voting centers across the state:https://elections.maryland.gov/elections/2020/2020%20Early%20Voting%20Centers.pdf

On Election Day, there will be more than 300 voting centers statewide, and these can be found here: https://elections.maryland.gov/elections/2020/PG20_List%20of%20Election%20Day%20Vote%20Centers.pdf 

Centers will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. COVID-19 precautions and signs will be implemented at these centers to ensure the safety of voters.

District of Columbia

The District will send ballots to every registered voter via mail for the Nov. 3 general election. Residents may drop off the ballots at any of the 50 drop box locations at any time before 8 p.m. on Election Day. 

In-person voting is also available in the District starting Oct. 27 at 8:30 a.m. The Board of Elections has set up 32 early vote centers, along with nearly 100 day-of vote centers that will open at 7 a.m. 

The complete list of drop box locations, early vote centers and Election Day vote centers can be found here.  

Residents may register to vote via email or mail by filling out this voter registration application. All applications must be emailed by or, if by mail, received by the Board of Elections no later than Oct. 21. Same-day registration is available as well during early voting and on Election Day with acceptable forms of proof of residence. You can also check your registration status here

For more information, see the Board’s voter registration guide. 

Virginia

To help lessen the burden on voters during the pandemic, early access voting began Sept. 18 and ends on Oct. 31 at local elections offices. Voters must have an acceptable form of identification, which includes a drivers license or passport. 

Virginia citizens may also vote via mail-in or absentee ballots by filling out this voter registration application. Local registrars made these ballots available to the public starting Sept. 18 and the deadline to request a ballot is 5 p.m. on Oct. 23. You may also fill out your mail-in ballot at home and return it in-person.

If you are unable to make certain voting deadlines, emergency absentee ballots can be requested from your local elections office until 2 p.m. on Nov. 2.Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation on Sept. 4 to allow cities and counties to deploy ballot drop boxes. Virginia residents should consult their city or county elections offices for locations.

For more voting information, see Virginia’s Department of Elections, frequently asked questions page.

Questions Mount for Maryland’s Next Session

Delegate Julian Ivey, D-Prince George’s, far right in dark suit jacket, sits with special session demonstrators on Sept. 16. (Philip Van Slooten / Capital News Service).

By Philip Van Slooten
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — General Assembly leaders in Maryland ended the 2020 session early and recently declined a special session due to pandemic and presidential election concerns. But they have yet to announce plans, particularly regarding legislative voting, as the next session draws near. 

“The reason we aren’t having a special session is because we need information,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, on Sept. 16 told demonstrators staging a mock General Assembly session outdoors while wearing masks and sitting six feet apart. “We need to do the work to make sure that when we convene as a General Assembly, we solve the problems that you care about.”

Ferguson and Jones further explained in a Sept. 17 letter to legislators concerns about acting “with imperfect information that will only be clear after the November 2020 Presidential election,” and stated convening an early session “would be a misstep and a disservice to the people of Maryland.”

In the letter, the legislative leaders articulated priorities such as police reform, long-term housing stability and improvements to working conditions, but stated the need for “greater clarity of federal support for state and local governments.” 

Ferguson and Jones indicated more information regarding federal funding and policy could be clearer after the election. 

The Maryland General Assembly ended its previous session early, on March 18, due to pandemic concerns. Though a special session had been planned early on for May, in a joint statement released April 20, both Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, stated it was still too soon to safely reconvene. However, virtual committee meetings continued. 

“After consulting with health experts, this is the best course of action at this time,” Jones stated on April 20. 

Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, told Capital News Service on Thursday one option was for legislators to meet in Annapolis in person, masked and socially distanced, and to live-stream proceedings for the public, lobbyists and others. 

“That’s why the hearings are so important,” he said of the virtual committee meetings being held since the session ended. “We are road-testing the technology to make sure things work and the public can still be involved.”

However, Christianne Marguerite, the digital and communications organizer for Progressive Maryland, one of the groups behind the call for a special session, told CNS the purpose of last week’s mock assembly was to show it was possible for the legislature to return to work even during the pandemic. 

“According to the constitutional constraints, the General Assembly doesn’t have to meet in a statehouse but in the capital of Annapolis,” Marguerite said. “That’s why we’ve mentioned outdoor venues (as possible demonstration sites) that can hold 141 individuals safely.”

Organizers chose the football field next to Phoenix Academy in Annapolis because it was a five-minute drive from the State House and could safely hold legislative members as well as members of the public and press. 

According to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 41 states have met in either a regular or special session since March, including Virgina, which began a special session on Aug. 18 to address the budget, police reform and pandemic-related issues. Maryland is one of seven states that adjourned sine die in March without reconvening. The conference reported Texas and North Dakota as “not in session” for 2020. 

A number of states held special sessions during the pandemic and past Maryland’s early end on March 18. (Data Source: National Conference of State Legislatures)

But Ferguson and Jones remained unconvinced, with Ferguson repeatedly telling demonstrators about the need “to get it right.”

Similarly, Republican House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, told CNS the constitution may require in-person voting on legislation, and leadership was “looking into how this can be done as safely as possible,” but there were no final plans for January as of yet.

On Aug. 14, General Assembly Counsel Sandra Benson Brantley — who works in the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh — responded to questions from legislative leadership regarding the “legality and constitutionality” of making changes to how the session is conducted during a pandemic. 

She responded in a detailed memo that changes to floor votes “involving a remote or virtual component” could risk “a successful legal challenge.”

Additionally, Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Joint COVID-19 Response Legislative Workgroup on Sept. 16 his concerns about gatherings for long periods of time, particularly as more activities move inside during the upcoming winter months. 

“The risk to indoor activities has not gone away,” he said, mentioning a recent CDC report finding indoor dining remained a high risk factor for contracting COVID-19. 

According to the report, “Adults with positive (COVID-19) test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative (COVID-19) test results.”

Researchers noted restricted airflow was also a factor in transmission “even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance.”

During last week’s special session demonstration, Jones told the crowd she was concerned about legislators at higher risk for contracting the disease, but still signalled an intent to reconvene as scheduled Jan. 13. 

However, questions remain as to how the session will be safely conducted, how votes will be counted so as to withstand legal challenges, and what precautions will be in place that were not available in either March, May or even now. 

While Ferguson’s and Jones’s offices stated by email that they were not ready to comment on preparations at this time, not every legislator is convinced that an outdoor special session, while the weather is still agreeable, is not a reasonable option. 

Delegates Gabriel Acevero, D-Montgomery, and Julian Ivey, D-Prince George’s, spoke during last week’s demonstration in support of convening a special session. 

“For 83 days I have been highlighting victims of police brutality and calling for a special session so that we can address that issue specifically,” Ivey told CNS during the protest. “Just like our essential workers are working, I believe legislators are essential and we should be doing our job that we were constitutionally elected to do.” 

Similarly, Acevero stated it was important for legislators to find a way to return to work during the crisis and address pressing issues such as police reform, health disparities and rent relief. 

“I support a special session for us to address the economic and health crises that this pandemic has created,” Acevero told CNS. “And to support working families who during this time are not only vulnerable but in desperate need of relief.”

“The only way we’re going to do that,” he added. “Is if we actually show up and if we legislate.”