BOWIE - Bowie voters in District 2 voted overwhelmingly on Dec. 19 to recall Councilwoman Diane Polangin from office during the city’s first-ever recall election. In total, 69.23 percent voted for the recall, with 30.77 percent against the decision.
However, some complications with poll watchers, registered voters designated by a candidate or political committee who help ensure the fairness of the polling process, have some residents concerned about the integrity of the voting procedure.
That morning, one of the five poll watchers designated by Bowie Citizens for Accountable Government, the group that led the recall effort, reached out to Bowie Councilman Michael Estève because they were not allowed entrance to the polling locations.
“Poll watchers have been denied access to polling locations at Kenhill and Christian Community Presbyterian Church (CCPC) all day on the grounds their poll watcher paperwork is invalid,” Estève posted to Facebook. “I have pressed city staff for six straight hours on this matter, and have been given inconsistent, incomplete, and at times, absurd answers as to why. Conversation with staff is ongoing, and poll watchers may not have access to polls before voting closes. Regardless of the election outcome, this is unacceptable and needs to be looked into fully.”
Kenhill and CCPC were the only two polling locations for voters in District 2.
Estève described poll watchers as a “very fundamental part of any election” that help “make sure the election is run according to the rules.”
According to the Bowie City Code, “each candidate or political committee shall have the right to designate a registered voter as a challenger and watcher at each place of registration and election. Such persons shall be assigned to such a position near the judges, inside the registration or polling room, as to enable them to see each person as he offers to register or vote.”
Fiona Moodie, a member of Bowie Citizens for Accountable Government and one of these poll watchers, said she was turned away at both polling locations.
“I was told that my challenger/watcher certificate was not accepted, and they called up people at City Hall, and they said, ‘Yes, there are going to be no challengers and watchers in today’s election,’ which is in direct violation of our city code,” Moodie said.
She said an election judge called up officials and put them on speaker phone.
“I was told by them that I was trespassing, which if I remained in the polling location…or attempted to enter again, I would be arrested for trespassing,” Moodie said. “About 30 minutes later, the police were sent over…The police warned me that if I entered the building again, I would be arrested. I said, ‘on what grounds?’
“They said they didn’t care what the city code said. They had been given the directive from the city to arrest me for, in quote, ‘some type of trespassing.’”
They were not given a specific reason as to why their paperwork was invalid. Rather, they were offered different justifications, including that “there would be no poll watchers, period” and “(the Bowie Citizens for Accountable Government wasn’t) a real group.”
According to the Bowie City Code: "a campaign committee, which is able to designate poll watchers, is defined as, “Any combination of two or more persons appointed by a candidate or any other person or formed in any other manner which assists or attempts to assist in any manner the promotion of the success or defeat of any candidate, Charter amendment, principle or proposition submitted to a vote at any municipal election.”
Estève said that after more than seven hours of communicating with city staff, he still did not have a conclusive answer as to why these poll watchers were not allowed at the voting sites.
“I was very frustrated by that,” Estève said. “I was really concerned why I couldn’t get a clear answer from staff. There’s no reason poll watchers shouldn’t have access (at the polling locations).”
Estève noted that as this was Bowie’s first-ever recall election, the day was somewhat chaotic. He said the complications with the poll watchers might not have been caused by any wrongdoing or bad intentions, but rather confusion and city rules being unclear.
“In fairness to the staff, we have never had a recall election before, so we have some rules that have never been tested before,” Estève said. “It may not have been clear how the rules would be applied.”
Estève said that to his knowledge, poll watchers have never before been denied access to polling locations.
He said his conversations with city staff were proprietary but added that “it was a bit chaotic. I was not getting consistent or clear answers.”
City Clerk Awilda Hernandez could not comment on the events, though she said, “I can assure you that the election was conducted properly to the best of my ability and that of the Board of Supervisors of Elections for the city…I have no reason to believe anyone was improperly barred from the polling locations.”
Estève said he’s going to pursue what happened in the coming weeks to better understand what went on. He noted that this may not be the city staff’s fault and that the city council may need to establish rules about the process better.