2020 | Government

Board approves ‘voting centers’ to replace polling places for election

Officials unsure how many drop boxes will be available for mail-in ballots

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A woman places a voting ballot in a ballot drop box outside of the Gaithersburg Activity Center on June 2 during the primary election.

File photo

Montgomery County’s Board of Elections on Monday approved a plan to use 38 large “voting centers” in place of the usual 240 or so polling places it usually has for the general election in November.

Election officials have said it’s an effort to increase health and safety. It also is expected to cut down on long lines at the polls, which happened in the primary when most balloting was by mail and in-person voting sites were limited.

County election officials also are asking for more drop boxes where residents can drop their ballots, but they don’t know how many they will get.

Before the pandemic, Maryland had voting sites for each of its roughly 1,600 precincts, including about 250 in Montgomery County. Compared to that, the voting centers will decrease the number of places residents can cast votes.

But they will be larger than the usual precinct voting centers. Also, any registered voter in the county can vote at any of the centers on Nov. 3.

The centers — which the Board of Elections unanimously approved on Monday — are part of the Maryland Board of Elections’ plan for handling the general election during a pandemic.

Gov. Larry Hogan previously called for every precinct in the state to be open for in-person voting, but allowed the board to carry out its plan for limited polling places in large, centrally located buildings instead.

There will be 360 voting centers across the state, which includes 282 public high schools.

The county’s 38 locations include 25 public high schools. The Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Silver Spring is the only one in Montgomery County not on the list.

There will be 11 early voting locations.

The Election Day voting centers will be:
● *Activity Center at Bohrer Park (Gaithersburg)
● *Damascus Recreation Center (Damascus)
● *Executive Office Building (Rockville)
● *Germantown Recreation Center (Germantown)
● *Jane E. Lawton Recreation (Chevy Chase)
● *Marilyn J. Praisner Recreation (Burtonsville)
● *Mid-County Recreation Center (Silver Spring)
● Nancy H. Dacek Recreation (Rockville)
● *Potomac Recreation (Potomac)
● *Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Department (Olney)
● *Silver Spring Civic Building (Silver Spring)
● *Wheaton Recreation (Silver Spring)
● White Oak Recreation (Silver Spring)
● All public high schools except Thomas Edison High School of Technology

(Locations with an asterisk will also serve as an early voting location.)

An additional voting center might also be set up at the Montgomery County Conference Center in Bethesda. The board will vote on Thursday over whether to use the conference center as a voting center, as well.

Early voting will run from Oct. 26 to Nov. 2, followed by Election Day on Nov. 3. The hours will be 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. There will also be voting through mail-in ballots.

The last day to register to vote is Oct. 13. The last day to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 20.

State Sen. Cheryl Kagan asked the Board on Monday to consider shifting early voting and Election Day voting from the Executive Office Building to Richard Montgomery High School.

She said parking is terrible at the Executive Office Building and many people do not know where it is, while the high schools are community gathering sites and are Metro accessible. The high school is within walking distance of the Executive Office Building, she said.

Board member David Naimon said he disagreed with Kagan because the Executive Office Building is known as an early voting site.

He said he didn’t advocate changing any of the sites as long as there’s sufficient personnel.

“I think that it makes much more sense for us to see what our personnel situation is and then consider how close the sites are to each other when we decide if we do need to make cutbacks because we don’t have enough people,” he said. “Because obviously, combining the sites that are nearby each other makes the most sense compared to eliminating sites that don’t have something that’s close by.”

Nahid Khozeimeh, vice president of the board, said she believed residents know where the Executive Office Building is and that parking is not a problem anymore.

In addition to the changes for in-person voting, election officials are planning to add 41 mail-in ballot drop boxes to allow direct delivery of ballots, so residents do not have to rely on the U.S. Postal Service.

But officials said Monday that they aren’t sure how many drop boxes they will receive from the state because of the high demand.

“I’m not even sure we’ll get 41,” Margaret Jurgensen, the county’s election director, said. She added that the manufacturer the state has hired to create the drop boxes does not know if it can complete the number the state requested in time for the election.

Asked if there would at least be enough for the 11 early voting sites, Jurgensen said she was not sure.

“When [the State Board of Elections] took the five drop boxes that we have, they made it very clear to us there was no guarantee that they were going to come back,” she said. “So at this time period, I am not willing to say anything until the state assures me when and where those drop boxes will be, how many we’re going to get, and when they plan to deploy them.”

She said the drop boxes need to be finalized with the state within at least the next 14 days, since the their locations will need to be sent to the state’s vendor, SeaChange, for printing ballot information.

Officials also requested additional drop boxes for each voting center and hope to install them at least three weeks before Election Day. Other drop boxes will potentially be at the city of Rockville Municipal Building, the Montgomery County Board of Elections building, and Leisure World (for residents only).

The cost for each drop box is roughly $3,000, which includes the cost of transporting the boxes to and from the State Board of Elections. Naimon said the county should ask the state to at least help cover half of the cost of the drop boxes.

Residents also can use a different delivery service, such as Federal Express or United Parcel Service.

As of Thursday, 90,559 applications for mail-in ballots have been submitted to the local Board of Elections in Montgomery County. Officials expect that ballots will be mailed starting on Sept. 24.

Election staff members are still working on a plan to carry out the election safely and effectively. Plexiglass is expected to be installed at every voting center and personal protective equipment has already been ordered for each site.

Jurgenson said each center will have a greeter at the entrance to make sure voters are following health precautions, including physical distancing and wearing a mask.

Anyone not wearing a mask will be offered one. Someone refuses to wear a mask will not be allowed in the building, but a ballot will be given to them outside, so they can vote.

The county has about 2,641 election workers signed up for the election, as of Friday. Those include:
● 1,324 Election Day voting operations judges
● 1,050 early voting operation judges
● 232 Election Day chief judges
● 35 Early Voting chief judges

According to Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, the county usually needs around 4,000 election judges for a general election.

Montgomery County Council Member Evan Glass called for the board to increase the number of mail-in ballot drop boxes. Glass made the request in a letter to Jim Shalleck, chair of the county’s board, on Monday.

He wrote that more drop boxes are needed because of the state’s plan for “dramatically” decreasing the number of polling locations and President Donald Trump’s claim about USPS being unable to handle the number of expected mail-in ballots.

“With the uncertainty of the USPS being able to deliver mail in a timely manner, I am writing to call for an expansion of voting drop boxes throughout the county, with particular attention to geographic areas with less access to public transportation or a nearby voting site,” he wrote.

He added that because of the high turnout expected for the election, it is “essential” to take every measure to ensure voters can safely cast ballots.

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