BALTIMORE — A slow trickle of voters made their way Tuesday to cast ballots in person at the three polling places in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District to choose a successor to the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.
The special election between Democrat Kweisi Mfume and Republican Kim Klacik was being conducted largely by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But some voters opted to drop their ballots in boxes available at the three voting centers and at election board offices in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. Others who didn’t get a ballot by mail or didn’t want to vote that way turned up to vote in person.
The state elections board announced Tuesday that it had received as of Monday evening nearly 100,000 completed ballots from the nearly 500,000 it sent to eligible voters in the district — about a 20% turnout so far. About 66,100 of the ballots returned were from registered Democrats, nearly 21,400 were from registered Republicans and about 11,200 were from voters not registered with either party.
Democrats hold a 4-1 voter registration advantage in the district.
At the Howard County fairgrounds in West Friendship, a light stream of voters Tuesday braved the pandemic — and the rain — to cast ballots. As of noon, fewer than 50 people, wearing face masks, had voted in person.
Wendy Royalty of Ellicott City voted by mail for Mfume. But the ballot of her 18-year-old daughter, Tess Miller, never arrived, meaning the she had to vote in person. The backup option left Royalty satisfied with the process.
“The Board of Elections has done an amazing job switching over so quickly,” Royalty said of the changes to the election caused by the pandemic. “I was a little worried at first, but they’ve done an amazing job.”
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan last month ordered the vote-by-mail election for the races originally scheduled for April 28. While he put off the state primaries that had been set for that day to June 2, he kept the 7th District special general election on Tuesday.
Royalty said it’s important for the district to have a representative in Congress. The seat has been vacant since Cummings died in October.
“The governor did the right thing,” she said.
In Baltimore County, a handful of voters waited outside Martin’s West in Woodlawn at 7 a.m. for the opening of the county’s voting center.
Corrie O’Connor, a 47-year-old teacher from Catonsville, cast a ballot for Klacik, convinced the Republican would bring a sorely needed fresh perspective to the district.
“We need to get someone else in there,” she said.
A Democrat-turned-independent-turned-Republican, O’Connor said she used to like Cummings, but felt he didn’t do enough for the district. She didn’t think electing another Democrat was a good idea.
O’Connor received her ballot in the mail but “ripped it up” and chose to vote on Election Day because she lacked confidence in the process. “I didn’t want my vote being stolen through the mail,” she said.
Tuesday’s special election — Maryland’s first to be conducted almost entirely by mail — is partly a referendum on Cummings, a Baltimore civil rights icon who had a rare form of cancer. He had held the seat since 1996.
Cummings succeeded Mfume, 71, who held the seat for a decade and is seeking to reclaim it. Mfume, a friend of Cummings who spoke at his funeral, calls Cummings’ tenure “excellent” and says he would be “the best successor to him.”
Mfume, a former NAACP leader and Baltimore City Council member, touts his endorsements from elected officials and faith leaders.
Klacik criticized Cummings’ representation as “horrible.” The founder of a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women enter the workforce, Klacik appeared on Fox News last year to discuss videos she posted on social media showing trash and blight in the district, portions of which she has likened to a developing country. She is a backer of Republican President Donald Trump, who called the district “rat and rodent infested” after the videos appeared.
The district includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
The winner of Tuesday’s race will fill the balance of Cummings’ term, holding the seat for the rest of this year.
Mail-in ballots began to be counted before Election Day, and early results are expected to be available after 8 p.m.
Health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic significantly altered the election. Hogan’s state of emergency and stay-at-home orders shelved traditional campaign rallies and fundraisers.
Election officials expanded a vote-by-mail operation previously used only for people who requested absentee ballots. They asked only people who didn’t receive a ballot in time and disabled voters to use the voting center in each of the three jurisdictions. They’re open until 8 p.m.
Felicia Woodland, 73, has cast a ballot in every election that she legally could. As a black woman, she said, her family hammered home how important it is to vote.
“It took us so long to be able to,” she said. But her ballot for the 7th District election never arrived in the mail. So, she took two buses to Edmondson Westside High School to try and vote in person. When she went inside, she said election workers told her she had to fill out paperwork to vote.
Her carpal tunnel syndrome was acting up too much, so she left without voting.
“May the best person win,” she said, resigned.
Baltimore elections director Armstead Jones said she was likely asked to fill out a provisional ballot.
Jones said the process had gone smoothly overall so far Tuesday.
City elections officials set up in the gymnasium, which is large enough to keep voters and election judges all 6 feet from each other. The judges — some who are considered high risk because of their age — sat behind plastic shields, wearing protective gear.
In Howard County, Lynne Deminco of West Friendship said she voted for Klacik.
“It’s time for a new voice,” she said. Deminco got a ballot in the mail, but figured it was easier to vote in person, since the fairgrounds are near her house.
“It was convenient and it’s just nice to vote in person,” she said.
Maryland will repeat the process in June on a much larger scale. Ballots will be mailed to more than 4 million voters statewide for presidential and Baltimore mayoral primaries.
The June primary will also feature 7th District candidates seeking a regular, two-year term beginning in 2021. Mfume and Klacik are on that ballot, but so are other candidates who ran against them in a special primary in February, including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and state Sen. Jill P. Carter, both Democrats.
Mfume said often during the campaign that, if elected, his previous tenure would allow him to regain at least some congressional seniority, helping him move up the ladder toward leadership positions. It is up to House Democratic leaders to decide how much seniority a returning member gets.
Klacik pointed to conflict in Mfume’s tenure as NAACP president from 1996 until 2004. A recent review of records by The Baltimore Sun found Mfume left after the threat of a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, several negative performance reviews and a vote by the executive committee of the NAACP’s board not to grant him a new contract.
Mfume declined an interview with The Sun about the Bond records, but said he took the organization from debt to a surplus, and received a raise in his final three-year contract in 2001. He said in a statement that “sometimes strong-willed leaders have differences of opinion” and that he and then-NAACP Chairman Julian Bond “were no different.”
The mail-in system for Tuesday’s election, coupled with the pandemic that has kept many people at home and dominated news coverage, made it difficult to predict voter turnout for the race. Turnout in February in the district’s special primary was about 18%; because it was a primary, voting was limited to registered Democrats and Republicans.
(The Baltimore Sun’s Luke Broadwater, Emily Opilo, Talia Richman and Pamela Wood and photographers Jerry Jackson and Karl Merton Ferron contributed to this article.)
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