The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the election process, with mail-in voting expanding as well as fewer in-person voting centers. In a previous blog post, I discussed four fantastic ways to improve mail-in voting based on the lessons we learned in 2020. The experiences of 2020 - as well as past elections - also revealed how to make in-person voting work better for Maryland voters.
Our democracy is the most representative and the strongest when everyone participates in voting, so we should ensure that eligible voters aren’t faced with any unnecessary barriers to vote.
Here are three terrific ways to ensure that voting centers are accessible:
1. Open more early voting centers for a longer amount of time.
Early voting centers play a crucial role in our elections, with 36 million people voting at an early voting site in 2020. Increasingly, voters across Maryland are opting to cast their ballots not on Election Day itself, but in the days before. In 2020, nearly 1 million Marylanders voted in person at an early voting site.
During the last election cycle, Maryland saw long lines at many of these voting centers. While the dramatic increase in early voting was largely due to COVID-19, there have often been long lines at early voting sites because there are far fewer early voting sites than Election Day precinct sites and because these sites are not open for as long as voting centers on Election Day.
As early voting turnout increases, we should ensure Marylanders can vote without having to wait an hour or more to vote - whether it’s due to work, childcare, or any number of factors, long lines are a preventable barrier to voting.
For many Marylanders, early voting centers provide necessary flexibility for those who have work or other obligations on Election Day, and research shows that additional early voting sites lead to increased turnout. Del. Luedtke (HB 745), Del. Crosby (HB 1005), and Sen. Kagan (SB 831) all sponsored legislation that would increase the number of early voting sites and ensure a minimum number of sites in each county. You can find our testimony in support of HB 745, HB 1005, and SB 831 on our website.
In addition, extending the availability of early voting by a couple of hours would enable voters to more easily incorporate voting into their day. This would be especially helpful for Marylanders who face demanding work schedules or family obligations—voters for whom the current 10 a.m. opening time is inconvenient or impractical. Multiple proposed bills have provisions that would open early voting sites at an earlier time of day, including HB 206 sponsored by Del. Washington, SB 596 sponsored by Sen. Washington, and SB 831 sponsored by Sen Kagan. Maryland PIRG’s testimony for HB 206 and SB 596 is on our website.
2. Make voting accessible via public transportation.
Polling sites and ballot drop boxes should be accessible via public transportation when possible. Accessing transportation to a polling location can be difficult, especially for low-income and communities of color, and it can be the difference between being able to vote or not. Polling stations near bus stops and rail stations can attract voters as they travel to and from work or elsewhere.
Del. Guyton has proposed legislation (HB 493) that would ensure that, all else being equal, local Boards of Elections would place ballot drop boxes and polling stations near bus stops and train stations. Del. Crosby introduced a bill (HB 656) that would require buses that have a route within half a mile of a polling station to allow passengers to get on and off at the polling station. And amendments to legislation introduced by Del. Luedtke (HB 745) would ensure that local Boards of Elections consider accessibility via public transportation when choosing early voting sites. You can read our testimony in support of HB 493 and HB 745 here.
3. Ensure polling sites are accessible to voters with disabilities.
Voters with disabilities face serious barriers when casting their ballot, leading to increasingly lower participation rates. Some of these barriers are physical, including polling stations with steep ramps and poor path surfaces. Other barriers are resource-related, with poll workers being under-trained on how to assist people with disabilities and a lack of resources available to election officials.
As a result, in the 2018 midterm elections, there was a participation gap of 4.7% for people with and without disabilities federally. In other words, if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities, there would have been 2.35 million more voters in 2018.
One easy improvement is ensuring voters with disabilities are able to place their ballots in dropboxes. Lack of accessibility was a real issue for voters with dwarfism or who used wheelchairs in 2020; many of these voters physically could not place their ballots in dropboxes. Ensuring that everybody can use drop boxes to vote will allow more people to vote successfully. HB 493 requires local Boards of Elections to place drop boxes in a manner accessible to people using wheelchairs.
Maryland PIRG believes that all eligible voters should be able to vote. There are several great ideas in front of the Maryland General Assembly that would boost voter participation and reduce the barriers that some of the most vulnerable populations face when voting. By making these adjustments, Maryland can seize an opportunity to bolster civic participation and strengthen democracy.