There is hope still for an additional early voting site in Montgomery County after an emergency meeting of the State Board of Elections on Tuesday.
A supermajority of the state board voted to direct the county to bring additional information about adding a 12th early voting site to the state board’s next meeting on Oct. 31.
The potential 12th site – in White Oak, a lower-income, high-minority corner of the county that experienced long wait times at the polls in 2018 – had been voted down along partisan lines by the Montgomery County Board of Elections last month. One argument for the additional early voting center is that it could cut down on the long Election Day lines.
A half-dozen people came to Annapolis on Tuesday to testify in favor of or against the local board’s decision.
Montgomery County Board of Elections President James F. Shalleck, a Republican, said members of the county board had been concerned about the cost of creating a 12th early voting site and said the county is adding hundreds of new pieces of equipment to cut down on Election Day lines, particularly in the eastern part of the county.
He also said the eastern part of the county – home to some of Montgomery’s densest population centers – already has four early voting centers, about a six- or seven-mile drive from White Oak.
But advocates for the additional site said a line “as the crow flies” between polling places didn’t reflect the transportation obstacles faced in an area with lower vehicle ownership and inadequate public transportation – especially on the weekends.
“Yes, if they could fly, they could get to … other early voting centers, but if they take public transportation, it’s a much more challenging thing,” said David Naimon, secretary of the Montgomery County board, who represented the two-person Democratic minority of the board who pushed for an additional site.
The debate has been tinged with partisan accusations after the three Republican members in Montgomery County voted against the additional site.
The nine Democratic members of the Montgomery County Council support the site, as does County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D); though he’d previously written a letter supporting an additional site for the General Election only, Elrich joined a news conference in late September supporting the additional site for the primary as well.
Naimon said the local board, back when Democrats had the majority, added an early voting site in the more rural Upcounty region, “which is, as you may know, not a Democratic territory. We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do.”
Faith Blackburne, of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, said racial implications on the White Oak debate also should not be ignored. The failure to add an early voting center at White Oak is a failure to address long lines, insufficient polling places and impediments to voting, she said.
“To knowingly permit the continual existence of such impediments is simply an attempt to suppress the vote of this African-American and African immigrant voting area,” Blackburne said.
State Board Member Kelley A. Howells, a Republican appointee, was the only member to vote against the board’s deeper examination of the issue. She said she trusted the local board’s review of the issue and didn’t think the state board should intervene.
“And, as an aside, I can tell you that when I hear the insinuation that local board members are acting out of animus toward black voters, that does not win me over,” said Howells, who joined the emergency meeting by telephone. “That has just the opposite effect. I know these people and it makes me angry.”
William G. Voelp, a Republican member of the state board who was appointed this summer, said he would support the motion to allow more research into whether the 12th Montgomery County site is needed, though he wasn’t committing to final approval of the 12th site. Board Chairman Michael R. Cogan (R) and Democratic members Patrick J. Hogan and Malcolm Funn also voted in favor.
This means the board will take up the issue again at its Oct. 31 meeting, when early voting sites throughout the state for the 2020 election are expected to be finalized.
The additional site was made possible by a bill passed by the General Assembly this year that allows counties to establish one additional early voting center beyond the number required by law. Montgomery County is required to have 11, based on the number of registered voters.
Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker (D) testified at the meeting in favor of the additional site and said he would begin working with the council and county executive on presentations to the state board later this month, including a promise to cover the costs of establishing an additional site. Shalleck estimated that an additional site could cost more than $500,000, which is a large chunk of the budget for the county’s elections office, but a small portion of the county’s $5.8 billion budget overall.
Early voting in Baltimore
The board also considered on Tuesday an appeal to add an additional early voting site in the city of Baltimore, though that proceeding lasted less than 15 minutes with fewer witnesses and no one showing up in favor of an additional site.
No member of the state board made a motion to establish the eighth site, so the issue died for lack of support.
Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., the city’s elections director, said there were multiple proposals to change or add early voting sites in the city proposed this year, but the local elections board voted 5-0 in September to keep the seven current early voting centers.
Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City), who could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday afternoon, had proposed moving one site from the University of Maryland Baltimore Community Engagement Center to Mondawmin Mall. But the board thought that proposal would cause too big a void in the middle of the city.
Hayes also supported the idea of adding an eighth early voting site in the city.
And, after the local board of elections vote, 12 members of the 15-member Baltimore City Council introduced a resolution supporting the addition of an eighth early voting site in West Baltimore. The resolution says that there is currently only one early polling place in West Baltimore and a second was important to make it easier for residents to exercise their right to vote.
A public hearing on the resolution before the council’s Judiciary Committee is scheduled for Oct. 29, though that date is beyond the counties’ Sept. 30 deadline to present proposed early voting locations to the state board.
Council President Brandon M. Scott and Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III, the lead sponsor of the resolution, could not be immediately reached for comment about the state board’s decision. It is unlikely that passage of the local resolution could alter the number of early voting centers for the 2020 election, given the state board’s position on Tuesday.