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Election 2024 Government & Politics

State elections board rejects Washington County early voting site

Photo by Angela Breck.

One western Maryland County will have to go back to the drawing board after the State Board of Elections rejected one of three proposed early voting sites.

Washington County elections officials hoped to open an early voting center in Hancock for the 2024 election. That location was rejected by the Maryland State Board of Elections over concerns that the site would disenfranchise voters of color.

“I think we get there with more work,” said Michael Summers, chair of the board. “I think this allows us to assist Washington County and getting to what best suits the residents of Washington County. With our input, they have an opportunity to come back with a newly proposed site or comment and understanding with regards to their rationale for the Hancock site.”

The five-member state board voted last week to approve 26 early voting centers in 11 counties.

Washington County elections officials proposed three sites. Two — in Hagerstown and Boonsboro — would be accessible to a large portion of the county’s population. A third, proposed for Hancock, 30 miles west of Hagerstown, was meant to provide an option for more isolated areas.

Some advocates in the county balked at the Hancock site, favoring instead a more centrally located library within the city of Hagerstown that they said would better serve historically disenfranchised voters.

State regulations, in part, require a county to consider disenfranchised voting communities when deciding early voting sites. Counties must establish a minimum number of voting centers according to their overall population. Those that are required to have one or two sites must ensure that at least 50% of the population lives within 10 miles of the location.

State Board of Elections graphic.

Angela Batista, chair of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee, said the Fletcher Branch of the Washington County Free Library system “meets every criteria and legal requirement to ensure that historically disenfranchised voters have a convenient and local place to cast their ballots.”

In addition to roughly 100 parking spaces, Batista noted the library is centrally within Hagerstown.

“The city of Hagerstown is the largest municipality in the county, and it also holds the largest number of historically disenfranchised voters,” said Batista. “Moving the location away from Hagerstown to Hancock is a clear attempt at voter suppression and I think it’s motivated by racism with the intent to make it harder for people of color to vote.”

The library is roughly three miles away from the Washington County Election Center, the site approved by the state board; the library is closer to the center of the city.

The Hancock site was also opposed by Del. Brooke Grossman (D-Washington County), Hagerstown City Councilmember Matthew J. Schindler and the Washington County branch of the NAACP.

Yaakov “Jake” Weissmann, a state elections board member, said he did not believe there was “ill intent” by Washington County officials when selecting the proposed sites.

“I appreciate the work that they’re doing,” he said. “I think it falls a little bit short, but I don’t want to in any way allege anything else was going on. I’m appreciative of their other efforts.”

Washington County is home to 155,590 people, according to the U.S. Census. County-wide, Black and Latino or Hispanic residents are roughly 20% of the total population.

Nearly three in ten county residents live in Hagerstown. There, Black and Latino or Hispanic residents are 27% of the city’s 43,701 residents, according to the Census.

Washington County is required to have two early voting centers, but proposed three.

“When we looked at our map, and we looked at the 10-mile radius of those three sites, those were the three best options of all the ones that we looked at, and we looked at every single combination,” said Barry Jackson, Washington County elections director.

Jackson said the election center — which he called “a mecca of early voting sites” — almost perfectly overlapped the coverage area of the library site. Paired with the Boonsboro site, the board was able to reach a substantial portion of the county’s population.

“The Hagerstown election board headquarters covers that because whether you’re looking at a 10-mile radius or a five-mile radius, our site completely covered the entire city of Hagerstown, and so those folks who live in downtown areas can get to the election center to vote,” said Jackson. “A couple of letters that complained about eliminating the library, made the intimation that folks in Hagerstown we’re going to have to go to Hancock to vote and of course that’s not the case. They will come to the elections center.”

And voters in and around Hancock would not have to drive 30 miles east to vote in Hagerstown, he said.

The panel rejected the Hancock site and sent the matter back to local elections officials to resolve.

Despite approving the Hagerstown location, state board members also echoed concerns about the accessibility of the election center site and access to public transportation.

“My hope is that maybe the local board can come to us with a better solution,” said Weissmann. “I’m looking at these other maps that existed in rural counties … and other counties seem to have been able to come up with a way to better handle this. Washington County said they had multiple options. This one doesn’t pass the test for me.”


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State elections board rejects Washington County early voting site