Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Are Preprinted Absentee Ballot Applications Legal?

The campaigns of both Ben Kramer and Nancy Navarro have been mailing out prefilled absentee ballot applications to District 4 voters. Each application already contains the name, address, date of birth, phone number and party registration of each voter, all of which are public records available from the Montgomery County Board of Elections. The voter need only sign it and mail it in to the Board of Elections. But language on the application itself as well as the state’s regulations call into question whether this tactic is legal.

We hear that Kramer’s prefilled applications have been sent to voters over the age of 65 in the district. Each application comes with a letter from the campaign urging the voter to fill it out:

Below is an example of an actual prefilled application sent by Kramer with the identifying information redacted:

The Navarro campaign also admits to sending out prefilled applications, although they say they are sending them to supporters. Kramer’s mailings seem to be more widespread.

So what’s the problem? The Montgomery County Board of Elections posts their absentee ballot application on their website. We reproduce the backside below.

The application says:

1. If you need assistance to complete this application because of a disability or inability to read or write:
(a) You may receive assistance from any person other than a candidate on your ballot, your employer or an agent of your employer, or an officer or agent of your union.
(b) The person assisting you to fill in this application must complete the Certification of Assistance portion of the application. If you are unable to sign this application, the assistant should print your name, followed by his or her initials.
Furthermore, Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) states:

A. In General. A formal application for an absentee ballot may be made to a local board only:

(1) On a form prescribed by the State Board;

(2) On a form provided under federal law; or

(3) Until January 1, 2006, on a form prescribed by a local board and approved by the State Administrator.

B. Dissemination of Forms.

(1) Local boards and others may reproduce and distribute the form prescribed by the State Board, but only if they do so without altering that form.

(2) The State Board or a local board may post the Board-prescribed form on the Internet, as long as the form is posted in a way that precludes altering its language.
So both the application itself and the state’s regulations seem to prohibit most prefilled or altered absentee ballot applications. But we hear that the State Board of Elections, Maryland’s sorriest agency, permits the practice anyway. Our sources tell us that both the Democratic and Republican Parties distributed prefilled applications in 2006. And the Navarro campaign says it has a letter from the Montgomery County Board of Elections approving its mailings. That is a far cry from 2002, when former Attorney General Joe Curran cracked down on prefilled applications.

We also hear that seniors in particular are reacting negatively to the applications. Many do not like to see their personal information used in this way, even if it is publicly available. Kramer’s use of the tactic is particularly ironic given his lead sponsorship of bills penalizing identity fraud against the elderly and financial exploitation of the elderly.

If the state and/or county Boards of Elections approved the use of prefilled absentee ballot applications by the Kramer and Navarro campaigns, then the campaigns cannot be blamed for obeying the law as they understood it. But both boards must still enforce their own rules. If they do not, then this will go down as another mortifying episode in Maryland’s increasingly voluminous history of electoral blunders.