In Battle Over Montgomery Voting Sites, State Board Denies Additional Location

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Partisan politics came to the Maryland State Board of Elections on Thursday – and board members said they wanted none of it.

At issue was whether to establish a 12th early voting center in Montgomery County. The Republican-majority appointees to the county’s board of elections voted against an additional center earlier this fall, while the Democratic county executive, County Council and State House delegation all supported an additional location in White Oak, a dense pocket on the county’s eastern edge where voters suffered excessive wait times during the 2016 general election.

It’s the second time this month the issue was before the state board. A few weeks ago, Democratic members of the county board appealed their Republican counterparts’ decision not to establish a new site. The state board ordered the local board to come back with an additional site proposal, which the state board would then vote up-or-down.

But that’s not what happened.

The local board – with three Republicans and two Democrats – remained divided. The majority, while still opposed to the idea of an additional site, proposed the Nancy H. Dacek North Potomac Community Center in the county’s more sparsely populated west side as an alternative. The Democratic minority continued to press for an additional early voting center at the White Oak Community Recreation Center.

The County Council and County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) promised to fund the establishment of an early voting site at White Oak at an estimated cost of $234,000, plus additional money to upgrade election equipment; no such promise was made if another location were chosen.

Montgomery is required by state law to provide 11 early voting sites, based on the number of registered voters. Legislation passed this year allowed the county to add one additional early voting center.

Under the new law, the state board can step in to make a decision about early voting sites when a county’s local board of elections and local governing board disagree.

Councilmember Tom Hucker (D), who represents the White Oak area, has pressed the issue at the state board.

“All the elected officials in Montgomery County all are behind the same position. It’s only three intransigent members of the local board that have been digging in their heels,” Hucker told the state board.

Nevertheless, state board members were reluctant to overrule the local board.

After more than two hours of debate and discussion Thursday, a majority of the state board – Chairman Michael Cogan and fellow Republican members Kelley Howells and William Voelp – voted against the additional site.

Board members expressed disappointment that the local board couldn’t come to a unified decision.

“It’s your job to make a decision, and you passed the buck to us,” Malcolm Funn, a Democratic member of the state board said. He and fellow democrat Patrick J. Hogan voted in favor of the White Oak location.

Voelp suggested that local boards should be required to reach supermajority decisions in the future to help avoid such deadlocks.

“Your board should not have put us in a political position. We are not in the politics game. None of us wish to be,” Voelp said. “…It is unappreciated.”

Howells said without evidence of wrongdoing or corruption, she was not inclined to overturn a local decision.

Cogan expressed frustration at being in the position of deciding whether to override the local board on two counts – whether to add the site and where, a situation that all members of the local board contributed to.

“You have come to us to see if we can resolve a political issue,” Cogan said. “Even though we are at the center of the political process, we are not ourselves political.”

He suggested that the county board should try another strategy four years from now: “Go back and re-do the whole system from the ground up. …Come back to us with new stuff.”

Another solution may come first. Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said Thursday that he plans to introduce emergency legislation next General Assembly session to mandate a 12th location in the county for the 2020 elections.

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