After a long and contentious deliberation, the Maryland Board of Elections declared Thursday that there will not be a 12th early voting site in Montgomery County.
The state board’s vote, affirming an earlier decision by the county’s Board of Elections, finalizes a weeks-long dispute and leaves the status quo — 11 sites — intact.
Democrats and community advocates have been petitioning for a 12th site since September against objections from the Republican-appointed majority on the local elections board. The state took up the issue after appeals from county and state legislators — including Council Member Tom Hucker — and the local board’s Democratic minority.
Proponents of a 12th site said it was needed to accommodate residents in the White Oak area, but the county board rejected that notion, saying it was an unnecessary expense.
The Republican-majority Montgomery County Board of Elections originally decided in September to reject calls for a 12th site. The county board voted 3-2 not to put an additional early voting site in White Oak — a location endorsed by local elected officials — or anywhere else in the county.
On Oct. 8, the Maryland board ruled that the county’s board must recommend to the state a location for a 12th early voting site. However, state board members specifically stated they were not prepared to overturn the local board’s original decision.
In response, the county board recommended two sites: one in White Oak — a dense and diverse area where some residents say they face difficulties traveling to nearby polling places — and one in North Potomac, which Republican board members said would serve the needs of upcounty residents.
“We thought it was the fairest thing to do because we couldn’t agree on a location,” county board President Jim Shalleck said.
But the recommendation of two sites didn’t sit well with state board members, who unanimously criticized the county for asking the state to make a final decision.
“That it’s come to us, to make us the bad guy in your political problem, is really offensive,” Republican state board member William Voelp said.
“I’m appalled at the action by the Montgomery County board, if I’m going to be honest,” Democratic member Malcolm Funn echoed. “It’s your job to make a decision, and you passed the buck to us.”
The state board’s vote was also split down party lines. The Democratic members — Funn and Vice Chairman Patrick Hogan — voted yes on Thursday on a motion to establish a 12th early voting site in Montgomery County at the White Oak Community Recreation Center.
The Republican members — Voelp, Kelley Howells, and Chairman Michael Cogan — voted against the motion.
Montgomery County already has 11 early voting sites, as mandated by state law. But a recent change to the law allows the county’s Board of Elections to designate an optional 12th site.
The intent of the amendment was for local boards to select the location of the site in collaboration with the county’s governing body, state board Deputy Administrator Nikki Charlson said.
But at the Oct. 8 meeting, state Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento said the Maryland board could overturn local decisions and side with county legislators in cases when the governing body and local board disagreed on the location for a site.
State board members used that interpretation to justify their earlier order to the county, compelling the board to recommend a location for a 12th site despite the initial majority vote.
But overturning that decision, and selecting the location of the additional site, was a step too far for Maryland board members.
“We are being asked to override a local board not once, but twice,” Cogan said. “We are being asked not just to determine whether there should be a 12th site, but to consider a site that the majority of the board does not prefer.”
The state board has previously weighed in on a Montgomery County election decision.
In 2015, the took considered multiple appeals after the county board, led by Shalleck, voted to shift two popular early voting sites — including the Marilyn Praisner Community Center in Burtonsville — to less-populated areas in the county.
The state board voted on whether to reverse the changes, but could not reach a supermajority decision. Shalleck later agreed not to move one of the sites after weeks of pressure from voters and Democratic leaders.
On Thursday, some state board members regretted taking that vote at all. Upholding the local board’s most recent decision was a way to avoid setting a statewide precedent for intervening in local rulings, Howells said.
“I don’t want to set a precedent that we’ll overturn these decisions if people put enough pressure on the board,” she said. “We don’t want to get involved in this, especially in situations where it turns political.”
The White Oak site was endorsed by more than two dozen Democratic elected officials, including County Executive Marc Elrich, Hucker, and the entire Montgomery County state delegation. U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents eastern Montgomery County as part of Maryland’s Third Congressional District, also wrote a letter in support.
Supporters argued that a new site would be vital for White Oak residents, who frequently face long lines and delays, even during the early voting period. Community activists said voters in the area relied heavily on public transportation to nearby early voting sites in Silver Spring and Burtonsville, traveling an hour and a half round-trip only to face longer-than-average wait times.
The argument frustrated Voelp and Cogan, who said the Montgomery County board should reconsider its early voting sites from scratch if some residents were being disproportionately affected.
Voelp expressed an interest in revising state law to require a supermajority vote by local boards, driven largely by the lack of agreement between board members in Montgomery County.
“Your board should not have put us in a political position,” he said. “It is unappreciated, and I personally think we can go a long way to solve this by mandating all boards have a supermajority. That way, the minority party is forced to work with the majority.”