Community activists and elected officials are urging the Montgomery County Board of Elections to overturn a recent decision against adding a 12th early voting site.
County Executive Marc Elrich joined Council Members Tom Hucker and Will Jawando at a press conference on Friday with a clear demand: The Montgomery County Board of Elections should convene an emergency meeting on Monday to reverse its decision not to add an additional early voting site at the White Oak Community Recreation Center.
If the board won’t reverse its decision on Monday — the day when local early voting site recommendations are due to the state Board of Elections — council members plan to take their petition further.
“If we have to, we’ll organize a bigger campaign to appeal to the state board,” Hucker said. “There’s nothing more fundamental than allowing someone to vote, and this is a clear case of disenfranchisement.”
Elected officials cannot dictate the actions of the board, an independent body with members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
But the ultimatum comes less than two weeks after the five-member county board voted 3-2 not to approve a 12th early voting site at its September meeting. The vote was split down party lines, with the Republican-appointed majority voting against the objections of two Democratic members.
Proponents of the site, including all nine members of the Democratic County Council, argued that an additional facility was vital given the increased demand for early voting and lengthy lines on Election Day in 2018. The site was especially important for White Oak residents, who have to travel to Burtonsville or Silver Spring for early voting, supporters said.
But most of the board, including President Jim Shalleck, said the site would be a needless expenditure when Montgomery County has 11 early voting sites open for eight days before the election.
Montgomery County is required to provide 11 early voting centers, but a recent change in state law allows the local Board of Elections to approve an optional 12th site.
In a phone interview on Friday, Shalleck emphasized that the majority of the board voted not to approve an additional early voting site anywhere in Montgomery County. Proponents of the facility previously suggested that the demographics of White Oak — a majority black community in District 5 — influenced the board’s decision not to establish a site there.
“That is absolutely not true,” Shalleck said. “That, to me, is a purely political attack. My personal view is that we made the right decision. We felt that with 11 early voting sites over eight days, there is sufficient early voting for everyone in the county.”
The stalemate between council members and the local board would put the state in an unprecedented position if the local decision were appealed, said Nikki Charlson, the deputy administrator for the Maryland Board of Elections.
In 2015, the state considered multiple appeals after the Montgomery County Board of Elections, led by Shalleck, voted to shift two popular early voting sites — including the Marilyn Praisner Community Center in Burtonsville — to different areas in the county.
The state board could not reach a decision on whether to honor the changes, and the county board ultimately decided not to move the sites after weeks of pressure from voters and Democratic leaders.
But in the 2015 case, the state board was weighing in on two early voting centers mandated under Maryland law, not an optional site, Charlson said. Local elections boards are expected to determine the location of early voting centers with collaboration from the county’s governing body.
“We’ve never been in this position before,” she said. “And the assessment of a new facility is not something we’re prepared to do. You can’t have the state board saying ‘Pick this site’ when we can’t even assess whether the site is suitable or not.”
As the establishment of a new site devolves into a larger political battle, community groups are weighing in. The NAACP of Montgomery County recently released a statement in support of the White Oak facility to help remove systemic barriers to voting.
“The Board of Election’s failure to add a site in White Oak is also a failure to ameliorate long lines, insufficient polling places and other structural impediments to voting,” the statement read. “To knowingly permit the continued existence of such impediments is simply an attempt to suppress the vote in this African American and African immigrant growth area.”
The Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County issued a statement in support of the new site at Friday’s press conference, as did Common Cause Maryland, an advocacy group that promotes voting rights and transparent elections.
Elrich also publicly endorsed the site on Friday after authoring a letter that Shalleck previously used to justify the majority’s opposition to the proposed facility.
Elrich wrote that he supported a 12th site for early voting in the general election, but had concerns about the costs of establishing an extra early voting site for the primary.
He clarified on Friday that he supports the 12th site for both the primary and general elections.
Shalleck largely characterized the decision as a funding issue. Opening a new early voting site would cost Montgomery County $117,000, he said in a previous interview. The state recently directed local election boards to spend an additional $349,000 on closed-data networks for same-day voter registration, which also increased costs for the county.
“But that shouldn’t be their decision,” Elrich said after the press conference. “It’s up to me and the council to decide whether to fund a new site. The board shouldn’t be making that decision because they’re not the ones spending the money.”