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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Judge backs state elections board’s rejection of Hancock early voting site

The Anne Arundel County Circuit Courthouse in Annapolis. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of state elections officials in a lawsuit over the proposed location of an early voting center in one Washington County town.

Earlier this year, the Maryland State Board of Elections rejected a request to locate one of two required centers in the county in Hancock. Plaintiffs in the case, including one Republican Washington County commissioner and the spouse of a Republican Hancock councilmember, alleged the board owed more deference to the proposal made by local elections officials. The plaintiffs also asked the judge to invalidate the vote based on several alleged procedural missteps including violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Glenn L. Klavans rejected those arguments. In granting the board’s request for summary judgment, Klavans said the board was in “substantial compliance” with state election laws and regulations.

Klavans added that the state board must consider local preferences but is not bound to “blind deference.”

“There has to be a strike zone that the state board can undertake in order to reach its determination as to whether to approve,” Klavans said in his ruling from the bench. “I think in this case, it’s clear from the affidavits and from the other materials supplied here, that the state board undertook a thorough and adequate analysis of the local board’s recommendation and reached a decision not to approve…on that basis.”

State Elections Administrator Jared DeMarinis praised the ruling.

“The state board and myself are always here to help try to maximize voter participation in Washington County and we are directing the local board now to select a new site and we’re looking forward to working with them,” DeMarinis said as he left the courtroom.

The case marks the first lawsuit against DeMarinis since assuming the role of the state’s top elections official in September.

The state board initially rejected the Hancock location during an Oct. 26 board meeting in which the panel approved more than two-dozen early voting center locations around the state, including two others in Washington County.

But the odd vote — a motion to approve that died for failure of a second — and a letter remanding the matter back to local election officials raised questions that the board had not properly voted on the matter at all.

The panel hastily scheduled a mulligan vote at a Nov. 3 meeting in which the proposal failed on a 3-2 vote. To pass, the proposal needed a supermajority of the five-member panel made up of three Democrats and two Republicans.

Adam Greivell, a Hagerstown attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the board violated state open meetings laws because the board published its official notification two days in advance rather than the three required by law and board bylaws. Additionally, the opening minutes of the virtual meeting did not include any audio.

“When you sue the government, you expect to lose and I think I lost in the way I expected to lose if I was going to lose,” said Greivell. “When you talk about deference, they give deference to the government, I think more than they should. In this case, I think it was clear that the meeting notice wasn’t reasonable. They didn’t know if they were voting or not. They tried to make it sound like they weren’t voting on Nov. 3. Now they’re saying they did vote.”

Greivell said the decision “is definitely appealable” but said the wishes of his clients were not clear in the immediate moments after the ruling.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Washington County Commissioner Derek Harvey (R); Ashley McCukser, the wife of Hancock Councilmember Josh McCusker; John Cohill, a member of the Washington County Board of Zoning Appeals; Michael Barnes, treasurer of the Washington County Republican Central Committee; John Gundling Sr. and Thomas Thorsen, both of Hagerstown; Patrick Leone, of Big Pool; and the Washington County Board of Commissioners, which joined the lawsuit Monday.

All five county commissioners are Republican.

Also in attendance at the hearing were a handful of Republican activists from Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties. The activists declined to be identified or interviewed but said they attended the case out of concern that a ruling would disenfranchise some voters. They did not elaborate on their concerns.

Washington County is required to have at least two early voting centers, but election officials proposed a third optional center.

State elections officials approved one required center in Hagerstown and a proposed site in Boonsboro.

The board, however, rejected a second required site at the town hall in Hancock, about 30 miles west of Hagerstown.

Opponents of the Hancock site favored a more centrally located library within the city of Hagerstown that they said would better serve historically disenfranchised voters including low-income residents and Black and Brown communities.

State regulations, in part, require a county to consider disenfranchised voting communities when choosing 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.

Local elections officials must consider other factors including accessibility, proximity to density of voters and transportation and public parking, and equitable geographic distribution of voting centers.

None of the considerations are requirements and an attorney representing the state elections board said few early voting center sites would ever fully satisfy every consideration.

“The five considerations can never all be fulfilled at once,” said Daniel Kobrin, an assistant attorney general representing the state elections board. “That’s why they are not requirements. There’s always going to be tension between putting early voting centers near dense populations of voters and putting them with equitable distribution throughout the county. That’s going to be true in every county in Maryland.”

Kobrin said an early voting center in Hancock would serve about 3,000 voters. And while that center would reach a “few hundred” historically disenfranchised voters, more — “tens of thousands” by Kobrin’s estimate — would be reached by locations with more dense populations.

“It was clear from the data that Hancock Town Hall was based entirely in consideration of one factor — geographical equitable distribution around the county — and that the other factors were not taken into account,” said Kobrin.


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Judge backs state elections board’s rejection of Hancock early voting site