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Maryland’s Primary Could Fuel Bogus Voter Fraud Claims. It Didn’t Have to Be That Way

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Election Day is Tuesday in Maryland’s primaries. Under a quirk in Maryland law that makes it unique among all other states, election officials aren’t allowed to even start counting mailed-in absentee ballots until Thursday.

Buckle in for an election count that in all likelihood could stretch into the weekend—and for little good reason.

With roughly a half-million mail-in ballots requested, the lag between Election Day and when we’ll know which candidates won their party’s nomination could be a long one. It also has all of the makings for adherents of any Big Lie to find perceived evidence of voting fraud. Just two years ago, then-President Donald Trump used such a gap—during which his day-of-voting margins shrunk as mail-in votes were counted—to fuel his bogus claims that Democrats were stuffing the ballot boxes as they counted in the days that followed.

In other words, there’s a ticking bomb for democracy’s credibility just outside of D.C., and no one is defusing it.

Maryland officials know the problem. During the height of the pandemic, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an emergency order that allowed votes to be tallied before Election Day because requests for at-home ballots surged. That order has since expired, and Hogan vetoed a measure in April that would have allowed it to continue; the term-limited Governor argued that the broader bill lacked election security measures that he demanded, such as signature matches.

In other words, Hogan didn’t get everything he wanted, so no one got anything. It was a game of chicken, and voters lost.

And it’s not like it’s a quiet ballot this cycle. Because of term limits and incumbents’ ambitions, voters in both parties will have a blank slate for nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and state attorney general. National groups have been playing in the primaries, with the Democratic Governors Association working to boost the chances for a Republican candidate its strategists believe is too extreme to prevail. (The DGA’s prefered candidate led two buses to Washington on Jan. 6 but says his crew did not join the riot at the Capitol.) And the picks in the highly educated D.C. ‘burbs may give national party leaders a hint as to just where both parties are centering their identity.

Political trickery aside, the Maryland primary on Tuesday is just the latest reminder that the stakes of elections matter well beyond political chit trading. The individuals in power have actively decided that they are fine with the public’s faith in elections being further eroded. It’s a choice that needlessly gives democracy’s doubters an opening, the kind of short-sighted screw-up that helps radicalize skeptics into insurrectionists.

Democracy only works when there is widespread participation and confidence that the system has legitimacy. When that falters, so too does the potency of the experiment. It’s not limited to either party, either. Both George W. Bush and Joe Biden faced protests over their elections, and the rancor did little to help the comity from Washington to Wasilla.

All of which is to say this: Tuesday’s voting in D.C.’s literal backyard should have been a moment for both parties to flex their muscles of democracy, to celebrate another exercise of the American experiment from the rural western stretch of the state all the way into the Washington suburbs. Instead, it’s another example of what happens when policymakers know they have a problem afoot and elect instead to hold hostage a fix in pursuit of a plussed-up answer. It’s a familiar play, even if it’s one that seems reckless from the outside.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com