After the Maryland Board of Elections declared last week that there will not be a 12th early voting site in Montgomery County, state Del. Eric Luedtke has drafted an emergency bill that would require an additional location.
Luedtke was one of more than two dozen elected officials who endorsed an optional 12th site in White Oak, a diverse area near Silver Spring. Some residents there have complained of long lines and difficulty accessing other early voting centers.
But the Republican-appointed majority on the county’s Board of Elections voted against the 12th site in September. They argued that it would be an unnecessary expense given the availability of absentee voting and four other early voting locations within a 10-mile radius of White Oak.
Establishing the 12th site for the primary and general elections in 2020 would cost about $234,000, according to board President Jim Shalleck.
Montgomery County has 11 early voting sites open to all voters for eight days before the primary and general elections. The county is required to provide 11 sites under state law, but the legislation was recently amended to allow the local Board of Elections to designate an optional 12th location.
Luedtke’s emergency bill would mandate a 12th site in Montgomery County. Early voting laws would not change for all other jurisdictions with more than 450,000 registered voters, which would still be required to provide 11 locations with the option to establish a 12th.
“We filed this bill pretty much as soon as we heard about about the state board’s decision,” Luedtke — a Democrat whose district includes large portions of eastern Montgomery County — said in a phone interview on Monday. “I had hoped they would decide differently, but ultimately, the failure was on the part of the local board for not honoring the wishes of voters in Montgomery County.”
The county’s delegation would need to approve the bill in January for it to be introduced in the Maryland General Assembly. The legislative session runs from Jan. 8 to April 6.
Maryland’s primary election in 2020 is on April 28 and the general election is on Nov. 3.
Luedtke plans to introduce the bill as emergency legislation, which means it would go into effect immediately after its passage. Unless the final version of the legislation stipulates a specific date for its implementation, the law would go into effect in time for the 2020 elections, said state board Deputy Administrator Nikki Charlson.
Almost every member of the local delegation previously endorsed the White Oak site in letters to the county and state Boards of Elections. Luedtke and other supporters of the site, including County Council Member Tom Hucker, have argued that its establishment is vital for residents who face inordinately high barriers to early voting compared to others in the county.
White Oak residents rely heavily on public transportation, Hucker has said, and often face a round-trip bus ride of more than an hour and a half to get to other early voting centers.
But access to early voting has become a prominent debate as the fight over the White Oak site continues. Shalleck and other election officials, including state elections board member Kelley Howells, have pointed out that residents can easily request absentee ballots if they can’t vote in person.
Thanks to additional funding endorsed by Hucker and approved by the rest of the council, the Montgomery County elections board will also spend $125,000 more on additional scanners, poll books, and personnel for the 2020 elections, focusing on precincts with the longest lines in 2018, Shalleck added.
Shalleck and the majority of the board said they would prefer to see if those measures were successful before funding a 12th site in hopes of reducing wait times.
“We’ve made it clear that the local board is making every effort to prevent long lines,” Shalleck said in a phone interview on Monday. “But apparently, it fell on deaf ears.”
Luedtke’s bill would circumvent a vote by the local board and the state Board of Elections, which declared last week it would not override the county’s original decision — despite previously ordering local board members to select a possible 12th location.
The issue was referred to the state in early October after county and state legislators appealed the local board’s initial vote.
There is no guarantee that a 12th site would be established in White Oak if the bill were passed.
Another conflict emerged when the state board directed the local board to select a 12th location for possible consideration. The local board could not agree on one site and instead recommended two.
The county board’s Democratic minority endorsed the White Oak Community Recreation Center. The GOP majority endorsed the Nancy H. Dacek Community Recreation Center in North Potomac — a site they said would better serve the needs of upcounty residents.
Should the local board not select the White Oak location — a site endorsed by County Executive Marc Elrich and a large majority of the county’s elected representatives — Luedtke said it would raise fundamental questions about how local boards are appointed and whether Montgomery County members should retain their seats.
“At that point, I think we should ask fundamental questions about whether the governor should ask them to resign,” Luedtke said. “Why should we have a majority Republican board when the county is heavily Democratic? And by the same token, why should Garrett County have a majority Democratic board when they’re heavily Republican?”
Under Maryland’s election law, a county board of elections must have a majority of its members from the same political party as the governor.
The Montgomery County delegation will hold a public hearing for Luedtke’s bill on Dec. 2 or 9.