OCEAN CITY — Voters in next month’s Ocean City municipal election will notice some considerable changes in the procedures at the polls due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
Like almost everything else, voting in November’s municipal election in Ocean City will be a little different this year. Gone will be the traditional booths with voters going behind the curtain and pulling the levers for their favored candidates.
Instead, the town’s Board of Supervisors of Elections are anticipating a large majority of voters to cast their ballots by mail through the absentee ballot process because of the lingering COVID-19 concerns. For those who choose to vote in person, the election will still be held in Hall A of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center on November 3, but there will be changes in the election process. Board of Elections Supervisors Chair Mary Adeline Bradford told the Mayor and Council this week the board took everything under consideration while preparing for the 2020 municipal election.
“We had three main concerns heading into this particular election,” she said. “The first was the safety of the election board staff and volunteers along with the public, while the second was the ease of voting and the third was ensuring a positive experience for the voters.”
Bradford said about 30 absentee ballot requests had been received as of late last week, but that number is expected to soar in the coming weeks as the election draws closer. She said the plan is to encourage absentee ballot voting to capture the votes of those who prefer the mail-in option.
“We went through the entire process and determined for this particular election, we need a different format,” she said. “The majority will want to vote by mail through absentee ballots. We’ve anticipated that. A neighboring resort community had 1,000 absentee ballots and just 300 voting at the polls.”
Absentee ballots are traditionally generated at the town level and ballots are mailed and returned to the City Clerk’s office. Bradford said in a typical election year, around 200 absentee ballots are submitted, which are manually tallied by board members on election day.
This year, however, the board is expecting a large number of absentee ballots that could make it difficult for the board members to tally and announce the results on November 3. The absentee ballots request and application process is spelled out on a link on the town’s government website.
The process on election day itself in Ocean City will be different in other ways this year because of COVID. For example, the traditional voting booths will be replaced with paper ballots filled out at tables in the convention center and fed into scanning machines.
The change is largely in the interest of public safety. Voters will be able to distance socially and each will be provided with his or her own pen, for example. Masks will be required and eliminating the old voting booths will limit interaction and prevent board members and staff from cleaning and disinfecting the booths after every use.
“Typically, the voters go into the booths with a closed curtain and they are hand-touching all of the levers,” she said. “We would have to go in and wipe and disinfect after each use. What we’re proposing is an electronic ballot with tables set up. The voters would sit at the table and fill out their ballot and feed it into a scanner, just like they do with the state and federal elections. This year, with COVID, we need to move to that format.”
There will also be hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and gloves available in the election hall at the convention center and the floor will be marked to encourage six-foot distancing in the lines. There are some minor costs associated with the changes. For example, the board is ordering 3,500 electronic ballots, a number that has never been exceeded in a municipal election in Ocean City. The four electronic ballot scanning machines will be rented at a cost of $700 each. The council approved the changes unanimously on Tuesday.
“It’s a fair request,” said Council President Lloyd Martin. “The board has done an outstanding job preparing for this election and getting ready with the changes. Hopefully, it works out and people are ready for it.”
This year, the mayor’s seat is up for election along with four at-large City Council seats currently occupied by Council Secretary Mary Knight and Councilmembers Dennis Dare, Tony DeLuca and John Gehrig. The other seats, held by incumbents Lloyd Martin, Matt James and Mark Paddack, are staggered and will come up for re-election in 2022.
Thus far, only incumbent Tony DeLuca and local attorney Peter Buas have officially filed for one of the four council seats up for election. The candidate filing deadline is Tuesday, Oct. 6 and the universal voter registration deadline set by the state’s Board of Elections is Oct. 13.