2019 | Government

Council Members Clash with Board of Elections over Early Voting Site

Board votes to deny new site in White Oak

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Voters stand in line at the Marilyn J. Praisner Community Recreation Center in Burtonsville. The site is one of two closest to White Oak, where some residents and councilmembers are calling for a 12th early voting site.

Photo courtesy of Tom Hucker via Twitter

Montgomery County’s Board of Elections rejected a request to add another early voting site, in a battle pitting Republican appointees against Democratic elected officials.

Montgomery County has 11 sites for residents who cast ballots during early-voting periods before primary and general elections. Some residents and county councilmembers were pushing for a 12th site at the White Oak Community Recreation Center for the 2020 elections.

Supporters argued that a new site would be vital for White Oak residents, who frequently face long lines and delays, even during the early voting period. Opponents, including the Republican-appointed majority on the county’s Board of Elections, argued that the new site would be a needless expenditure to solve a minor issue.

Early voting lasts eight days before the primary and general elections. Voters can vote early, or on Election Day, or they can vote by absentee ballot if neither is possible.

Seven of nine councilmembers and Del. Marc Korman, chairman of the county’s delegation in Annapolis, sent letters supporting the 12th site.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich also supported the proposed site in White Oak, his spokesman confirmed.

But a letter Elrich sent the Board of Elections before the vote was interpreted differently. Elrich wrote that he supports a 12th early voting site for the general election, but has concerns about the benefit of an additional site for the primary.

Board President Jim Shalleck used the message to justify the majority’s opposition to a new site.

The proposed location would largely benefit White Oak, an unincorporated community in District 5 with a majority black population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Many immigrants and people of color live there, said longtime resident Daniel Koroma, and many work multiple jobs that make weekday voting difficult.

Proponents of a 12th site, including Koroma and District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker, argued that residents in the White Oak area often face long lines and extensive wait times at the closest early voting sites in Burtonsville and Silver Spring.

Early voting has become increasingly popular, Hucker said, and will likely have higher turnout in the 2020 elections. The number of Democratic presidential candidates could also lead to high demand for early voting next year, he added.

“There’s an unprecedented amount of interest in who the Democratic nominee will be,” Hucker said. “And we’re talking about adding a site in an area where some residents stood in line for two hours just to vote.”

Korman cited figures from the Board of Elections website on early voter turnout in Montgomery County. In 2014, roughly 35,000 early ballots were cast in the gubernatorial general election. By the 2018 general election, the number had jumped to around 113,000.

“With a presidential election approaching, it is clear that a critical need exists in Montgomery County for an additional early voting polling site,” Korman wrote.

Koroma said he stood in line at the Silver Spring Civic Center for more than an hour and a half one Saturday to vote early in the 2012 presidential election. There was a much shorter wait at the Marilyn J. Praisner Community Recreation Center in Burtonsville — another early voting site roughly six miles from White Oak — where he voted in 2016 and 2018, he added.

But the Praisner Center is two miles away from the closest bus stop, Koroma said, and the county bus doesn’t go there on weekends. Even the bus to Silver Spring, which runs all week, is a two-hour round trip coming from White Oak.

“It’s a big issue for a place where most of the residents rely on public transportation,” he said. “Or work two jobs, so they can only vote on weekends. That’s the challenge we’ve been facing since early voting started in Maryland.”

By voting not to approve a 12th site in White Oak, the majority Republican board was essentially denying ballot access to minority, often low-income residents, Koroma and Hucker argued.

“The fact that this is happening in a working-class area, and a majority African-American area — I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Hucker said. “And rejecting this site despite their own data on early voting is the very definition of voter suppression.”

But to the majority of the county’s Board of Elections, including Shalleck, occasional wait times at 11 early voting sites didn’t justify the expense of a 12th location.

Every voting site costs around $117,000 per election, Shalleck said, and the state has mandated that the county spend about $349,000 more for precinct upgrades before the 2020 elections.

Those upgrades will include hardware and data services related to same-day voter registration on Election Day, Nikki Charlson, the deputy administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections, wrote in an email. Maryland voters approved Election Day registration in November 2018, starting this year.

The county board plans to add scanners and volunteers at precincts with long wait times for early and Election Day voting, Shalleck said.

“Our goal is not to have a wait time more than 30 minutes,” he continued. “That’s a goal, and we’re going to make every effort to help that occur. But the fact remains that we have 11 early voting sites open for eight days across the county. The majority of the board felt it was not an appropriate use of taxpayer funds to open a 12th site.”

Before the board voted Monday, Shalleck read aloud Elrich’s letter, which expressed support for a 12th site for the general election, but concern about an addition for the primary.

“Turnout is supposed to be high for the 2020 general election, therefore, I support adding a 12th early voting site for the general election,” the letter read. “The additional convenient voting opportunity will hopefully increase turnout and help reduce lines on election day which was a problem in 2018.”

“I have concerns about the cost and additional benefit of implementing another early voting site for the primary election in this fiscal year,” Elrich continued. “As you know, Maryland’s primary is on the back end of the primary calendar. If the presidential nominations are already determined by the time of our primary, turnout might be very low for the whole primary as there are no other competitive races in our county.”

“I think the county executive’s opinion that he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to spend money on the primaries is an important guide for us,” Shalleck said during Monday’s election board meeting. “He’s the leader of the county. He doesn’t think we should have an additional early voting site for the primary.”

Through a spokesperson, Elrich later criticized Shalleck’s interpretation of his letter. Elrich fully supports a 12th early voting site in White Oak, said spokesman Barry Hudson, and the concerns were about the primary and general elections occurring in different fiscal years.

“Given that adding an early voting site in the primary would have to happen in the current fiscal year (requiring a supplemental appropriation) combined with the fact that turnout is much higher for a general election than for a primary election, he decided that the way to get the most bang for the buck was to focus on an additional site for the general election,” Hudson wrote in an email statement.

“He’s very clear about saying he supported the 12th site,” Hudson added in a phone interview. “He never said, ‘I don’t want a 12th site.’ They interpreted one piece of the letter to mean he didn’t support it fully.”

There is precedent for adding an early voting site for the general election but not for the primary, Charlson said. In 2018, Frederick County successfully added a fourth early voting site for the general while maintaining three for the primary. The change must be approved by the local Board of Elections and county government, as well as the state Board of Elections.

Montgomery County must have 11 early voting sites, Charlson said, but recently secured the option of adding a 12th voting site if approved by the government and the local board.

Disagreement over the letter underscored the divisions between Democratic county officials and the majority Republican Board of Elections, which came under fire in 2015 for attempting to shift two early election sites to less populated areas of the county. Supporters of a 12th site say the demographics of White Oak, which is more diverse and lower-income than many other Montgomery County neighborhoods, appeared to be a factor.

The election board also voted to transfer an existing early voting site at St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church to the new Wheaton Library and Community Recreation Center, a much larger facility. Shalleck described the transfer as another measure to help ease wait times.