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Mailing it in: A better way to conduct special elections in Maryland

By Delegate Jon S. Cardin (MD) and Jonathan J. Huber, Baltimore Sun, February 7, 2012

Holding an election is an expensive business. State and local governments must coordinate to recruit, train, supervise and pay civic-minded poll workers who come early and stay late to set up and tear down polling places all over Maryland, consuming millions of dollars from our state and county treasuries. Special elections, required by law to fill vacancies in county councils and the House of Representatives, are among the most expensive elections we run. Current law requires holding both primary and general "special" elections, requiring expenditures and planning similar to those of regular elections.

These constraints result in increased costs per voter. For instance, in 2008, a little more than 20,000 people voted in the special election to fill the House seat vacated by Albert Wynn, costing Prince George's and Montgomery Counties more than $50 per vote — for one election. (Gov.Martin O'Malleysigned special legislation bypassing the primary, citing cost and time constraints.) By contrast, those same two counties spent less than $3.50 per vote in the regular 2008 election. To address this problem, I have introduced a bill in the House of Delegates that would permit special elections to be held by mail.

Many states are moving toward voting by mail: Oregon requires all elections to be conducted by mail, and Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington state allow voting by mail at some level. California and West Virginia have also enacted legislation allowing counties the option of conducting special elections entirely by mail.

Why is voting by mail gaining so much momentum? The answer: money. After Oregon introduced all-mail elections, its costs dropped more than 71 percent. Colorado's costs decreased by more than 50 percent; Washington's costs dropped almost 44 percent from 2006 to 2010; and in May 2010, Hawaii saved nearly 25 percent when it conducted its special congressional election entirely by mail.

Adopting this pilot program would provide several benefits. First, the Department of Legislative Services estimates that a special election involving both a primary and a general election could cost more than $4.2 million. My proposal could reduce that cost by at least $1 million. Second, as a pilot program, this bill merely permits (and does not require) a vote-by-mail election and applies only to special elections. Those who prefer to vote in person could continue to do so at a designated polling place. Third, other states that have adopted voting by mail have seen increased turnout in their elections. Washington's turnout in special elections increased almost 15 percent from 2002-2011, and Colorado turnout increased more than 16 percent between the 2008 presidential election and off-year 2010. Finally, Maryland already has a vote-by-mail system — it's called absentee voting. Voting by mail eliminates this duplicative system.

Despite some concerns about fraud, all-mail elections have proved to be at least as secure as polling place elections. In Oregon, where voting by mail has been the norm since 1997, trained elections staff compare every signature on every mail ballot with the signature on the voter's registration card before the ballot is counted. Forging a signature or lying about qualifications like age, residency, or citizenship is a class C felony that can mean a $125,000 fine, time in prison, or, when relevant, deportation. Though thousands of fraud complaints have been investigated in the state since 2000, only nine — out of more than 15 million mail ballots cast over 10 years — have led to criminal prosecutions. Similarly, in Washington, where 38 of 39 counties conduct elections entirely by mail, fraud and abuse have not been a problem.

Here in Maryland, we are challenged to make our election process as transparent, open and secure as possible. In addition, we have a responsibility to the citizens to be as fiscally responsible as possible in pursuing these worthwhile goals. Adopting a pilot vote-by-mail program could prove to have far more benefits than costs.

I am fortunate to have Jennie Forehand of Montgomery County and her colleagues in the Senate working with me on this bill, H.B. 225. In the coming weeks, I will show my fellow lawmakers legislation with a positive fiscal impact that ensures a secure and trustworthy voting system, making Maryland a leader in efficient and cost-effective elections. I hope they choose to support this legislation.

Jon S. Cardin represents the 11th District in the Maryland House of Delegates. His email is jon.cardin@house.state.md.us. Jonathan J. Huber is a student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.