2015 | Politics

State Legislators Say They’ve Found Solution to Early Voting Site Controversy

Officials plan to introduce bill that would reopen Chevy Chase, Burtonsville early voting sites

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State Sen. Rich Madaleno (left) pictured with Brian Frosh in October 2014 before Frosh voted at the Jane Lawton early voting site in Chevy Chase

Aaron Kraut

State legislators from Montgomery County say they’ve found a solution to the controversial decision to replace early voting sites in Burtonsville and Chevy Chase.

They plan to introduce a state bill in January that would give the county two additional early voting sites at those locations.

Last week, the Republican-controlled Montgomery County Board of Elections (BOE) decided on nine early voting sites for the 2016 primary and general elections out of a list of 17 possibilities. The BOE decided to keep seven of the locations that served as early voting sites during the 2014 primary and general elections.

But the three Republican members on the five-member board caused an uproar among local Democrats when they replaced two of the 2014 sites—the Marilyn Praisner Community Recreation Center in Burtonsville and the Jane Lawton Community Recreation Center in Chevy Chase—with sites in less densely populated Brookeville and Potomac.

BOE President Jim Shalleck, who was appointed to the position earlier this year by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said the decision to replace the Burtonsville and Chevy Chase sites was not done for political reasons, but to give people in other areas of the county a chance to take part in early voting.

District 18 State Sen. Rich Madaleno, who represents part of Chevy Chase, said adding the Chevy Chase and Burtonsville sites back into the mix would be “a win-win.”

“[Shalleck] had said he wanted to make sure more people around the county had access to early voting and right now, the only limitation on that is the number of sites,” Madaleno said. “If you bump it up to 11 [sites], it keeps the sites where people have grown accustomed to them and provides the Board of Elections an opportunity to get more people participating in early voting.”

Legislators from Districts 16 and 18, which cover Bethesda and Chevy Chase, and District 14, which covers Burtonsville and much of East County, worked on the proposal since the controversy started.

Madaleno said they plan to include the bill in a list of Montgomery County-focused legislation that will be the subject of a November public hearing in Rockville. If the bill gets backing from the county’s full delegation, as expected, it would be introduced when the General Assembly starts in January.

The bill would identify the Burtonsville and Chevy Chase sites as the two extra early voting sites. Madaleno said he doesn’t think the BOE would have time to consider locations for the two extra sites before April 14, when early voting for the primary begins.

Madaleno said the original state law that allowed early voting designated specific sites, before a change allowed local election boards to pick the sites.

He said the two extra sites would likely cost around $50,000. It’s unclear at this point whether the state or county would provide the funding.

“I don’t mean to diminish the importance of $50,000, but within the context of one government with a budget that exceeds $4 billion and one with a budget that exceeds $30 billion, you would think that we’d be able to find $50,000 to give more people the chance to vote,” Madaleno said, “which seems like an important expenditure in a democratic society.”

Democrats were dismayed at the BOE’s decision to replace the voting sites. It left the Silver Spring Civic Building as the county’s only early voting site inside the Capital Beltway or east of the Route 29 corridor.

Some in Bethesda were especially disappointed that the BOE decision meant no early voting site within close proximity of downtown Bethesda, the county’s largest employment center and one of its most dense population centers.

Many in Burtonsville and Silver Spring said the replacement of the Burtonsville site, which was one of the most popular early voting locations in 2014, was meant to make it more difficult for the area’s large black population to vote.

Madaleno and other state legislators are set to join County Council member Nancy Navarro Thursday in Rockville in a press conference to announce the bill.

The press conference will follow a hearing of the Navarro-led Council Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee in which all five members of the BOE are expected to appear to discuss why they chose to replace the Burtonsville and Chevy Chase sites.