The Maryland state board of elections voted 4-1 on Oct. 31 not to approve an additional early voting site for Montgomery County during the 2020 primary and general elections, siding with the county board’s original decision. (File Photo)

ROCKVILLE – The Maryland State Board of Elections voted 4-1 to direct the Montgomery County Board of Elections to propose an early voting site on Oct. 8.

The county board of elections voted back in September not to pursue a 12th early voting site for the 2020 presidential elections, emphasizing the cost it would create – $117,000 each for the primary and for the general election.

Board officials elected to have an emergency meeting on the issue after both Montgomery County and Baltimore City Boards of Elections rejected proposals for an additional early voting site.

The state board decision creates a scenario other than the norm, said Donna Duncan, assistant deputy for election policy in the Maryland State Board of Elections.

If the county board had supported the additional site, the next step would have been to select a location for the polls to occur, and then propose it to the state board of elections.

“It is unusual for the state board to be requesting that a local board present information on a possible early voting site,” Duncan said. “Normally, the local board presents to the state board automatically ‘Here are the sites that we wish to use,’ and the state board would approve them after a review.”

During its September meeting, the county board voted 3-2 along party lines against a 12th location.

People testified in support of and in opposition to adding the site. Several people who gave comments in support of the site specifically advocated to put the polling place at the White Oak Community Recreation Center, arguing that it would increase early voter turnout at the primary and general elections due to its proximity to voters in a high-density area, and in turn, reduce wait time on election day. Members of the majority were not persuaded.

An animated discussion preceded the county vote among board members. The two opposing votes came from the pair of board members who do not share Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) political affiliation. The vote received backlash from members of the community, including residents and elected officials.

County Councilmember Tom Hucker (D- 5) and County Executive Marc Elrich (D) held a news conference on Sept. 27 to request that the county board hold an emergency meeting on the last day that it may submit proposed early voting sites, but Montgomery County Board of Elections President Jim Shalleck said the board decided not to have one since it received no new information.

Del. Eric Luedtke (D-14), who represents Montgomery County and recently became House Majority Leader, announced at the end of September that if the state board did not order the creation of a 12th site, he would propose a bill in the Maryland General Assembly to require it.

During its emergency meeting Oct. 8, the state board listened to public comments in response to its agenda item, whether to ask the county board to propose a new early voting site. Shalleck told the state board that a reason for the majority’s choice was the cost.

The state board requires a supermajority, 4-1, for the move to go forward. That inherently would mean bipartisan support since three of the five voting members are the political party of the governor, while two are whichever party the governor is not.

Shalleck said the county board would present a proposed location for the 12th early voting site, as the state board requested.

“We will follow the direction of the state board,” Shalleck said.

Despite the late decision to add a 12th site, Shalleck said staff will still be able to put the packet of data and information about the proposed site together for the state.

The staff already have the information; the county board just never used the data because they nixed the idea of an additional site before discussing possible sites to recommend.

Hucker, who was vocal about his support for a 12th site and advocated extensively for the site to be the community recreation center in White Oak was including during the state board meeting saying he believes it would be the best choice because it would serve the largest number of “disenfranchised voters.”

He disagreed with the county board of elections’ past decision not to approve the 12th site for early voting last month.

“To cite budgetary reasons (is) to go far outside their authority,” Hucker said of the county board of elections.

David Naimon (D), county elections board member and board secretary, said during the county meeting and during the state meeting, he would support the White Oak location for the increase in access it would create for votes in the White Oak community. He said he did not believe the cost was too high.

Many who live in the area that would be served by the proposed White Oak site have voted at the two closest sites – the Marilyn J. Praisner Community Recreation Center or the Silver Spring Civic Building at Veterans Plaza.

Many low-income families and people who are racial minorities live in that area. They must take the bus for at least an hour, one way, and on weekends no buses service one of the two sites. For the White Oak location, the site would be walking distance from several voters.

Oct. 8 was not the first time in recent history that the state board directed the county board to go back and change something related to a past early voting decision.

In 2015, the state board directed the county board to not close the Praisner Community Recreation Center as an early voting site, although the county board voted to close it.

In 2018, the Praisner Center was well-used and due to the turnout, had problems with long lines on election day, with wait times exceeding one hour, Hucker said. Hucker has noted that more than 30% of the population in White Oak do not own cars and rely on public transportation.

The county board is scheduled to meet on Oct. 21, when members will vote to select which site to recommend to the state board. The state board is scheduled to vote on the proposed site during the Oct. 31 meeting.

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