Credit: File photo

As the Nov. 3 general election nears, Montgomery County officials are preparing for a different kind of election that involves enforcing masks, distancing and other requirements — and many more ballots than usual being cast by mail.

The County Council is focused on public access to vote canvassing.

Canvassing is the process of confirming that every valid ballot has been cast and counted. The public usually has access to view this process, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken things up for the Board of Elections and presented new challenges.

During a County Council meeting on Thursday, the county’s Board of Elections said it plans to have a live camera feed, so people can watch the canvassing process. Election officials assured the council that the public and the media could be there in person, too, but they have not figured out the details.

Canvassing will take place at the Plum Gar Recreation Center in Germantown. It will be the first time that election officials will need to canvass outside the county’s election office.

Ballots began to arrive in mailboxes in Montgomery County last week. The county had received 4,293 votes as of Thursday afternoon.

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Alysoun McLaughlin, deputy election director for the county, said vote counting will begin on Tuesday of next week at 10 a.m.

“It’s really challenging for us at this time [to] go ahead and open up those areas to public inspection, to public observation,” she said.

Council Member Hans Riemer said that while safety is important, the council wants the highest level of transparency in the process.

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“Transparency of the election is also invaluable,” he said. “I know that there’s a way to meet both of these needs.”

Jim Shalleck, president of the county’s Board of Elections, told the council that officials are committed to a safe and secure election.

“Our board is dedicated to making sure that every vote is counted,” he said. “Our board, our staff — they’re the best. I want everyone to have confidence that this is going to work.”

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The voting centers will have plexiglass in front of poll workers sitting at tables. Masks, gloves and face shields will be available for poll workers to use. Masks will be available to voters if they don’t have one.

Residents will not be allowed inside voting centers if they are not wearing a mask.

“If there’s an issue and they refuse to wear a mask, they will be able to vote, but outside of the voting center,” Shalleck said. “We’re not going to let you in if you don’t have a mask. We hope that’s not going to be an issue. You can vote, but we’ll take you to an area outside of the voting center.”

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Early voting begins Oct. 26 at 11 sites and continues through Nov. 2. Residents can vote at any of the 11 early voting sites between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

In-person voting on Election Day will be he held at 39 voting sites across Montgomery County on Nov. 3. Residents can cast their ballots at any of the voting centers, which includes 25 high schools.

The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 13.

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As of Wednesday, there were 325,998 requests for mail-in ballots. The board has processed more than 275,900 ballot requests and sent them to the state.

The state will then send out the ballots to residents. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 20.

Mail-in ballots can be requested by U.S. mail or can be printed from the internet.

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David Naimon, secretary of the county’s Board of Elections, urged voters to request the ballot through the mail instead of printing it.

“It saves on cost and it also allows the count to be done faster and more easily,” he said, adding that the ballot can be mailed or dropped off at a drop box.

Ballots can be dropped off at the Board of Elections facility or at ballot drop boxes throughout the county. The county plans to have 50 drop boxes.

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Of those, 25 are currently available.

On Oct. 15, 16 more will be available. Nine additional boxes will be available on Oct. 24.

Council Member Craig Rice said he was concerned about ballot drop box security. He said he’s seen social media comments threatening to damage or invalidate ballots in the boxes.

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Shalleck said all of the drop boxes have camera surveillance and the police department is aware of each drop box location. The police are adjusting their schedules and routes to check on the boxes, he said.

Both Council Member Will Jawando and Rice expressed concern about potential voter intimidation. They noted President Donald Trump’s comment during the presidential debate on Tuesday, when he encouraged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”

Shalleck said the board has “zero tolerance” for any intimidation, wrongdoing and interference at the polls.

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“If that occurs, we will get the law enforcement involved and either the attorney general or the state prosecutor. … We’ll get the cops involved and people who are willfully doing this should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he said.

Political parties, the Maryland State Board of Elections, local Boards of Elections, candidates, and official political committees supporting or opposed to a candidate or proposition on the ballot are allowed to designate poll watchers to monitor proceedings, but people who are not involved in the proceedings do not have that right.

Naimon reminded the council that election results are not final on Election Night.

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“That’s not just this year, that’s every year. … In 2016, we did not certify the election until Dec. 7,” he said.

Mail-in ballots can arrive up to 10 days after Election Day if they are postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3. They must be received by 10 a.m. on Nov. 13 to be considered on time.

Shalleck said the board is still searching for election judges who are Republican or bilingual, but assured the council that the election would be fully staffed.

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There are currently 3,419 judges for early voting and 2,200 judges for Election Day.

Questions?

Residents can text 77788 to get more information about the election, including drop box locations and early voting locations.

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The phone number for the county Board of Elections is 240-777-8500.

The board answers frequently asked questions online here.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.