Updated at 4 p.m. – The decision Monday by the Montgomery County Board of Elections to replace 2016 early voting sites in Burtonsville and Chevy Chase with sites in Brookeville and Potomac has made some down-county residents and Democrats unhappy.
The county Board of Elections (BOE) picked nine early voting sites for the 2016 presidential primary and general elections out of 17 possibilities.
Included in the list of 17 possible sites was the Jane Lawton Community Recreation Center in Chevy Chase and the Marilyn Praisner Community Center in Burtonsville, both locations that hosted early voting in the 2014 primary and general elections.
But the five-member BOE, which has three Republicans and is led by Republican Jim Shalleck, chose instead to name the Longwood Community Recreation Center in Brookeville and the Potomac Community Recreation Center in Potomac as early voting sites by a 3-2 vote along party lines.
The other seven sites, including one in Damascus that was the least popular in 2014, will remain. The county BOE decision is likely to be upheld by a Republican-controlled State Board of Elections.
“We wanted to make it accessible to parts of the county that have never had early voting sites,” said Shalleck, who emphasized that the Brookeville site will serve a nearby and growing Olney community.
State law mandates that the party of the governor have a majority on local election boards. That means Republicans will lead the Montgomery County BOE until at least 2019.
Gov. Larry Hogan nominated Shalleck to the post of BOE president in February. Shalleck challenged County Executive Ike Leggett for county executive in the 2014 general election. Leggett got 167,052 votes, beating Shalleck by a nearly two-to-one margin.
District 14 state Del. Eric Luedtke, a Democrat who represents the Burtonsville area, tweeted his displeasure with the removal of the Burtonsville site Monday night.
District 16 state Del. Marc Korman, a Democrat who represents Bethesda, said Democratic state lawmakers in his district and next-door District 18 began getting hints late last week that losing the Chevy Chase site in favor of Potomac was a possibility.
“What they’ve done is they’ve swapped it with a site in a much more sparsely populated area and basically no employment,” Korman told Bethesda Beat. “There’s going to be almost no one voting during the day.”
District 16 State Sen. Susan Lee attended the Monday BOE hearing and made a last-ditch appeal to stave off the move.
A letter sent by District 16 and District 18 lawmakers to the BOE pointed out that the Lawton Center is about half-a-mile from the Bethesda Metro station, “certainly more transit-accessible than any site in Potomac,” and close to almost 40,000 people who work in downtown Bethesda.
At the start of their regular session Tuesday morning, all nine Democratic County Council members registered their disappointment with the decision.
Council member Nancy Navarro said the council is “exploring what would be our recourse.”
“This was clearly a partisan decision by the new Board of Elections to disenfranchise elderly voters in probably the largest concentration of seniors in Montgomery County,” said Jon Weintraub, a downtown Bethesda resident who emailed the BOE asking for it to choose the Chevy Chase location as an early voting center again.
“It’s sad,” Weintraub said. “It appears to be a clearly partisan decision.”
Shalleck denied the decision was made for political reasons, saying the BOE’s goal was to come up with an even distribution of early voting sites throughout the county.
“The count is three to one [in terms of Democrats to Republicans] in every area except maybe Damascus,” Shalleck said. “We maintained seven of the nine sites that were set by a Democratic-majority board. It was not political. But if we wanted to be political we could’ve by a 3 to 2 vote moved more Democratic sites like Silver Spring and Wheaton, but we did not.”
The list of 17 possible sites also included the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, the county government building steps away from the Bethesda Metro station.
With the removal of the Lawton Center as an early voting site, the only early voting site inside the Capital Beltway in 2016 will be the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. Other unchanged sites include a recreation center in the Layhill area of Silver Spring, the Executive Office Building in Rockville, the Germantown Community Recreation Center and the Activity Center at Bohrer Park in Gaithersburg.
All registered Montgomery County voters are allowed to vote at any of the nine early voting sites. But statistics show the likelihood of a registered voter voting early decreases based on his or her distance from an early voting site.
Montgomery County went from five early voting sites to nine for the first time before the 2014 gubernatorial primary.
The Marilyn J. Praisner site, located in Burtonsville near Route 29, had the second most early voters with 4,988 before the 2014 general election and the third most early voters with 2,324 before the 2014 primary election.
The Silver Spring Civic Building was the most popular early voting site before both the 2014 general and 2014 primary elections, with 4,988 voters and 3,961 voters, respectively. The Executive Office Building in Rockville was the second most popular early voting center with 2,506 voters before the 2014 primary.
The Lawton site in Chevy Chase was the fifth most popular site before the 2014 primary with 2,187 votes and the seventh most popular site before the 2014 general with 3,355 votes.
The least popular site before both elections was the Damascus Community Recreation Center, which attracted just 1,468 voters before the general and 518 voters before the primary.
Shalleck didn’t specify why the sites in Burtonsville and Chevy Chase were chosen to be replaced.
"It's so sad that it's come to this," said County Council member Nancy Floreen on Tuesday. "This could become such a political act in an environment where we tried so hard to take it out of the world of politics."
Council member Tom Hucker, who represents Silver Spring, called the decision "naked voter suppression that will make it harder for thousands of working families and minorities in my district to exercise their right to vote."
Council member Roger Berliner, who represents Bethesda and Chevy Chase, said "the Potomac location is more residential, further away from the Bethesda urban core, and poses a challenge to access the location during the weekday daytime."
Pat Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, tried to peg some of the blame for the decision on Hogan.
"More than 8,000 people voted at the Lawton and Praisner rec centers last November, and Larry Hogan's Republican Party just made it harder for them to vote next year," Murray said in a statement. "Larry Hogan's strategy is clear: If you can't beat 'em, cheat 'em. That's not change. That's politics as usual."
Early voting for the April 26 primary election is set to run from April 14-21, with close Democratic battles for U.S. Senate and the 8th congressional district expected. A competitive race is also expected for the Republican nomination in the 6th congressional district now led by Democratic Rep. John Delaney.
The newly selected Potomac Community Recreation Center could prove to be a key early voting site for that district.