A plan to have just one early voting center for all of St. Mary’s County in the upcoming election is voter suppression, a local lawmaker says, charging that the county’s board of elections is deliberately making it harder for people of color to vote.
St. Mary’s County’s only early voting center for the Nov. 3 election will be at the centrally-located Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department, according to local election officials’ plan as approved last week by the State Board of Elections. Although more than 60% of the county’s voters live within five miles of that location, having only one early voting center will mean voters living in the densely populated, diverse southern section of the county won’t have easy access to early voting, Del. Brian Crosby (D-St. Mary’s), who represents the southern portion of the county, said.
“It is voter suppression,” Crosby told Maryland Matters. “It absolutely is.”
Crosby said his district contains 35% of the county’s voters, and also has the most low-income residents and people of color in the county. He warned that many residents of the county’s southern region rely on public transportation, and routes from towns like Lexington Park to the Hollywood firehouse are lengthy and convoluted.
He noted that the geographic center of his district is more than 14 miles from the early voting center. Crosby worries that, if voters don’t have easy access to an early voting center, they’ll crowd the polls on Election Day. St. Mary’s County is slated to have seven voting centers on Nov. 3, with some located in the southern portion of the county.
County officials originally intended to open another early voting center at a high school in the southern part of the county, but the county’s board of education refused to let them use the location. Crosby feels that county officials haven’t done enough to find another early voting center in the area.
“Having that lack of access crowds the Election Day polls even more in the middle of a pandemic, putting not just not just the people who are casting their ballot at more risk, but people like the poll workers, and frankly, the rest of the community at risk for transmission,” Crosby said.
Local advocates feel they’ve been left in the dark by the St. Mary’s County Board of Elections. William “BJ” Hall, the president of the county NAACP branch, said he’s sent multiple letters to election officials asking for better access to an early voting center. Hall added that the local NAACP has even provided early voting center suggestions to the local board of elections, but said he hasn’t gotten a satisfying response from officials.
“I don’t know how this ended up being our responsibility,” Hall said.
‘The rug was pulled out from under us’
County election officials, on the other hand, say their options were limited when it came to finding early voting centers in Crosby’s district. They originally planned to open an additional early voting center in the Great Mills High School, which local advocates say would have been more accessible to voters in the southern part of the county, but had to walk back their plan after the county’s board of education declined to let them use the facility.
“I was extremely excited when I saw the initial list,” Hall said. “We had Great Mills as an early voting center. Then we didn’t, and that’s what really fired me up.”
Despite “aggressively looking,” local election officials weren’t able to find a replacement for the high school, Wendy Adkins, the director of the St. Mary’s County Board of Elections, told members of the State Board of Elections during a meeting last week.
“There is literally no other facility we could use,” Adkins told state board members before they reluctantly accepted her election plan.
As for Hall’s suggested alternative early voting locations, Adkins said she and her staff considered each one, but none were suitable for early voting. With early voting set to begin in a little over a month on Oct. 26, local election officials would be hard-pressed to find and staff a new location in time.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) initially ordered every regular polling location open for early voting and election day, but a staggering shortage of poll workers led state officials to switch to fewer, larger in-person voting centers. Local boards of elections across the state were responsible for finding their own voting centers on a time crunch, with many using high schools or other large facilities to offer in-person voting.
Michael R. Cogan, the Republican chairman of the State Board of Elections, said he tends to defer to local boards of elections when making decisions about voting centers. He noted that Adkins searched for, and was unable to find, a replacement early voting center.
“The rug was pulled out from under us on this one,” Cogan said.
But access to voting sites isn’t a new issue, Joanne Antoine, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland. She said demands for better access to early voting and Election Day polling locations is an issue that has cropped up across the state in recent years, particularly in minority neighborhoods.
Just last year, Montgomery County elections officials rejected a request for an early voting site for residents of the county’s White Oak neighborhood, where more than half of all residents are Black. Residents there, who are lower income and less likely to own a car than in other parts of the county, had to set aside multiple hours to reach other early voting sites, advocates argued.
“It’s something that’s been an issue since long before COVID-19,” Antoine said.
St. Mary’s County only used one early voting center, at the Hollywood Firehouse, during the 2016 General Election. Roughly 2,900 residents voted early during that election.
Registered voters in Maryland can apply for a mail-in ballot for the upcoming election before Oct. 20, but Antoine said it’s important that voters have multiple voting options available. She pointed to recent U.S. Postal Service delays and worries over delayed mail-in ballots as reasons that residents need access to early voting sites.
She said some voters likely won’t consider voting by mail due to personal concerns over the security of mail-in elections. While mail-in elections are overwhelmingly secure, President Trump has launched repeated attacks on voting by mail.
Delays in mail delivery, brought on by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s cost-cutting policy changes, stoked fears over voter suppression and election issues in recent months. While DeJoy has since said he’ll postpone any “longstanding operation initiatives” until after the election, some worry that his removal of sorting machines and other cuts could jeopardize the upcoming election.
“People need to be able to have an alternative option, even if that means going in person and having to cast a provisional ballot because a request was made,” Antoine said.
Crosby said he’s working with local advocates to try to encourage residents to vote by mail, but said it’s been a challenge. He noted that fears over Postal Service delays, coupled with confusion over how to apply for and use mail-in ballots, mean some voters may opt to simply vote in person.
Democratic State Board Member Malcolm L. Funn urged Adkins to identify other possible early voting centers for future elections, noting that the southern part of the county is “highly populated,” and the lack of access to an early voting center might be an issue for the 2022 election.
“We may have the same issue again,” Funn said.