2022 | Government

Gaithersburg dissects in-person early voting

In last year’s election, about 6% of votes were cast early and in person

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Logo from City of Gaithersburg website

While recapping last year’s municipal election, Gaithersburg City Council members considered changes for in-person early voting for future city elections.

The city held a “hybrid” election last year, with a combination of in-person and mail-in voting, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents could vote by mail if they completed a ballot application. Early voting in person was held Oct. 23 and 24 at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, which is also where in-person voting was held on Election Day, Nov. 2.

According to data presented at Monday night’s council meeting, the breakdown of 4,836 votes cast in the election was:

  • 279 residents voted early during the two days
  • 3,156 sent in mail-in ballots
  • 69 used provisional ballots
  • 1,332 voted in-person on Election Day

The turnout of 13.2% of the city’s 36,592 registered voters was the highest turnout out of the past seven election cycles, according to data presented by City Attorney Lynn Board on Monday.

The 279 people who voted in person early represents 5.8% of the total number of ballots cast in the election.

Council Member Ryan Spiegel said he thinks early voting is needed, but it might make sense to limit it for future election cycles.

“Maybe we limit it to one day of early voting instead of two, but before we get rid of it completely, maybe we should try a gradual transition period of reducing it by a little bit to see what happens,” he said.

Council Member Neil Harris said more early voting means extra work for candidates campaigning at the polling place.

“And it didn’t seem all that productive in terms of increasing turnout,” he said.

Last year, voters who completed mail-in ballots could either mail them back to the city or drop them in one of six drop boxes around the city. Harris suggested adding another drop box near the Rio or Crown Farm developments, which had a larger voter turnout, he said.

Lisa Henderson, one of the two council members elected last year, said on Monday that residents should have as many options as possible to vote, including early voting.

“If we’re gonna increase [early voting], great. But I would not want to reduce it to any less than the two days that it is,” she said.

During the public comment portion of Monday night’s meeting, Dave Belgard, an unsuccessful candidate in last year’s election, and former Council Member Mike Sesma expressed support for early voting.

“Not everyone is able to get out of work on a Tuesday to vote, and not everyone has easy access or fully understands the process of sending in a mail-in ballot,” Belgard said.

Sesma, who didn’t run for re-election last year after 16 years in office, said he worries that some could interpret fewer options for voting in person as an effort to suppress voting.

“I think there are always going to be people that always vote in person, and they may not vote in person on Election Day, so we need to have that option. I think any effort to perhaps reduce that access by changing the number of days could be seen by some as an effort to suppress the vote,” he said.

Council Member Jim McNulty, who was also elected last year, initially said it would make sense to shorten the window for early voting. But after others spoke in favor of keeping it as is, he clarified that it wasn’t his intention to suppress the vote.

“That was a very valid point, and I can be talked into keeping it,” he said of the concerns raised about voter access.

There was more agreement Monday on whether to maintain the hybrid system for the 2023 election. Most council members said they thought last year’s election went smoothly.

“The numbers speak for themselves as far as voter turnout, and hopefully we can think of ways to increase that trajectory,” Council Member Robert Wu said.

Wu and Spiegel agreed that increasing the emphasis on mail-in voting might be a good strategy for future elections.

“Conceptually, in my mind it seems like something that would be yet another way to lower the thresholds a little bit, lower the barriers a little bit, encourage a little more turnout,” Spiegel said. “And it’s worked in other jurisdictions, like Rockville. So, conceptually, I do think we ought to be moving in that direction, but I think we can do it a little more incrementally and there’s no need to rush towards it tomorrow.”

In 2019, Rockville held a vote-by-mail election and achieved 29% turnout, which was nearly double the turnout of prior elections. In that election, ballots were automatically mailed to registered voters in the city.

Board, in her presentation, said last year’s hybrid election cost $162,096 — more than triple the $53,945 cost of the 2019 election.

Additionally, she said an election in which ballots were directly mailed to all registered voters in Gaithersburg, as was done in Rockville, would cost roughly $271,100, compared to $148,250 for an election in which only voters who applied would receive mail-in ballots.

Mayor Jud Ashman said it’s important to do a cost-benefit analysis of the increased emphasis on mail-in voting. Last year’s election, while costly, yielded a 42% increase in turnout from the 2017 election, which was the last contested one.

Write-in candidates were allowed in 2019, but the three candidates on the ballot ran unopposed.

“It’s hard to know where we hit that law of diminishing returns. And I’m not sitting here arguing against it, but it is a substantial increase in cost for a solid increase in participation,” Ashman said.

Board said the city’s Board of Supervisors of Elections will discuss the election issues further, and the City Council will get a proposal for changes to the city’s election ordinance.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com