Rockville Becomes Testing Ground For Vote-By-Mail In Maryland Elections More than 38,000 voters in Rockville had their ballots mailed to them, in what city officials say is an experiment to increase voter turnout in city elections.
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Rockville Becomes Testing Ground For Vote-By-Mail In Maryland Elections

Rockville Becomes Testing Ground For Vote-By-Mail In Maryland Elections

Rockville sent out some 38,000 ballots in early October, allowing voters to either mail them back in or drop them off at City Hall. Martin Austermuhle/WAMU hide caption

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Martin Austermuhle/WAMU

Early last month Rockville, Md., resident Melissa Golladay got a big envelope from the city delivered directly to her doorstep.

"We got a whole bunch of things," she says, sorting through its contents. "There was the actual ballot, which is in English and in Spanish, and it has all the instructions on there as well. We also got a second sheet that has instructions for how to fill out the ballot. And probably the most important part: we all got a Rockville election 'I voted' sticker that we can wear once our ballots have been turned in."

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And Golladay wasn't alone: some 38,000 Rockville residents got the same thing in the mail. It's their official ballot for this year's city election, where voters will choose a new mayor and four-member council.

In a move that's being watched by state and county officials across Maryland, Rockville decided last year to ditch its usual 10 polling places and instead send every registered voter a ballot in the mail for its 2019 local elections. Voters can do their research from home, make their picks and mail the ballot back in.

"What drove this was the Board of Supervisors of Elections wanted to enhance the voter participation and voter turnout, because between the 2011 and 2015 elections it's been between 15% and 16% turnout," says Sara Taylor-Ferrell, Rockville's city clerk.

At least 21 states across the country conduct at least some of their elections by mail. And in places like Oregon and Washington state, going to the traditional polling place on Election Day is almost ancient history now. Rockville is the first place in Maryland — and one of the first on the East Coast — to make the leap into vote-by-mail. D.C. could soon follow, and Virginia may consider expanding absentee voting in a way that mimics vote-by-mail. (New Jersey offers this, and Pennsylvania is moving to do so.)

Advocates like Amber McReynolds compare mail in voting to the shift to shopping online, where you pick your product, pay for it and have it delivered directly to you. By contrast, in-person voting asks a lot of the voter.

"What we've done with voting process is we've said 'Well, now you have to go pick up your product and you have to go our assigned location on this specific day during this specific time and you're likely going to wait in line to do so,' " she says.

McReynolds is a former director of elections in Denver where elections are now carried out almost entirely by mail. She's currently with the the National Vote at Home Institute, and says the goal of voting by mail is to make everything more convenient for voters. And she says it has other benefits, too.

"We now have studies that show voters who cast their ballot by mail are more informed because they have more time, they can research issues, they can do farther down the ballot because they are not rushed in that polling place/Election Day environment," she says.

Officials in Rockville — which was also the first place in Maryland to bring back paper ballots in 2015 — say the biggest challenge they've faced is letting everyone know that the change was coming. Taylor-Ferrell says every registered voter and every household in the city got at least four mailers this year explaining how the new vote by mail system works, and the city also reached out at festivals and via TV and social media.

And that, in part, explains the significant cost increase in running the election: from roughly $60,000 under the traditional system to $300,000 for vote-by-mail. McReynolds says those expenses should level off and decrease in the future as voters get used to the new way of casting their ballot.

Monique Ashton is a first-time candidate for the city council, and she says there have been mixed opinions from residents she's spoken to on the new way of voting.

"I've heard excitement, I've heard some people say it's easier. It depends who you talk to. When I talk to working families and people whose schedules are really intense, they say this has made it so much easier for me. I've also talked to people in that same category who they get so much mail that they didn't realize that it was in their mail or they saw it and lost it. So that's a concern," she says.

Ashton also says it's changed how candidates campaign. While they used to be able to focus only on sending mailers or visiting the homes of regular voters, they now have a much broader group of possible voters they need to try and sway.

City officials say any voter who loses their ballot, never got one or made a mistake when they made their picks can get a new ballot. And if they don't want to mail it in, there's a 24/7 dropbox in city hall, where there will also be a voting center Tuesday for anyone who wants to cast a ballot the traditional way.

Rockville resident Melissa Golladay dropped off her ballot on Monday. She's a former election judge in Montgomery County, so today will be the first time in a decade that she won't be working the polls in Rockville. But she thinks advances like early voting and vote-by-mail are good for democracy, especially in local elections that get far less attention than their national counterparts.

"People can plan their schedule around when they vote, which makes it much more convenient. And ultimately we want people to vote, right? All of these tools that make it easier for people to vote are a good thing," she says.

It looks like the city's goal to increase turnout may come to pass. As of Monday, more than 7,800 ballots had been received by city officials. In 2015, total turnout was 6,468.

And to Golladay's relief, the envelope that contained her ballot also had something else: the traditional "I Voted" sticker — this time, with an image of a mailbox on it.

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