Montgomery County expects to have 38 ‘voting centers’ for general election
Concern about safety, staffing prompts state board to consolidate sites
A woman places a voting ballot in a ballot drop box outside of the Gaithersburg Activity Center on June 2 during the primary election.
This story was updated at 4:25 p.m. Aug. 17, 2020, to correct the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot.
For this year’s general election, Montgomery County expects to have 38 “voting centers,” a fraction of the usual number of polling places.
The voting centers are part of the Maryland State Board of Elections’ recently approved plan for the Nov. 3 election. Although Gov. Larry Hogan has called for every precinct in the state to be open for in-person voting, he said the board can carry out its plan for more limited polling places in large centrally located buildings.
The board’s plan addresses understaffing for poll workers and election judges. The centers will also create a safer environment for residents who vote in person, according to state officials. Registered voters will be able to use any of the voting centers in their county.
Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of Montgomery County’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said at a media briefing on Thursday that county employees are working on a safety plan for the election. This includes installing plexiglass, gathering enough personal protective equipment and other precautions.
In the county, 38 locations are being considered as voting centers, including 25 high schools. There would be 11 early voting locations.
The county is also looking into installing drop boxes to allow direct delivery of ballots, so residents do not have to rely on the U.S. Postal Service.
“We [have] roughly about 1,300 election judges lined up,” Stoddard said. “If we had done a normal election, we would need something like 4,000. But I haven’t heard the revised plan [for] exactly what the new strategy will mean in terms of those numbers. We have already had conversations within the county government about how we will substitute in additional support for those sites.”
According to the county Board of Elections’ website, there are 2,641 election workers signed up so far. Those include:
● Election Day chief judges: 232
● Election Day voting operations judges: 1,324
● Early voting chief judges: 35
● Early voting operation judges: 1,050
The state’s plan for consolidated “voting centers” in each county is a compromise between having all precincts open plus mail-in voting, as Hogan preferred, and an election mostly or entirely by mail, which Democrats wanted.
The board’s plan calls for 360 voting centers across the state. They would include 282 public high schools.
Alysoun McLaughlin, deputy election director for the county’s Board of Elections, told Bethesda Beat in an email Friday that the exact number of polling places changes from election to election, depending on site availability.
She said there are about 240 “usual polling places,” which does not include early voting sites. Some serve multiple precincts on Election Day and some double as both Election Day and early voting sites.
Usually, the state would have polling places for all of its roughly 1,600 precincts.
Hogan had called for all of the precinct polling places to be open for in-person voting to avoid severe backlogs that happened when in-person voting was limited for the April primary.
In Montgomery County, 90,559 applications for mail-in ballots had been submitted to the local Board of Elections as of Thursday.
Hogan issued a proclamation on Monday that allows the state’s Board of Elections to establish voting centers and alternate voting locations for the general election.
In a letter to State Board of Elections Chairman Michael Cogan the same day, Hogan wrote that he was still concerned with the board’s plan.
“I remain very concerned that the Board’s decision to close nearly 80% of the polls will have the potential of creating long lines and unsafe conditions, with crowds of people being forced into too few polling places,” he wrote.
Hogan wrote that he does not intend to “interfere” with how the board conducts the election. He reiterated that he directed officials to expand and encourage voting by mail and to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter.
Hogan and Maryland Democrats remain at odds, though, on voting by mail. Hogan has called for every registered voter to automatically get an application in the mail for an absentee ballot. Democrats, including the Montgomery County Council, have said the state needs to go further and automatically mail the absentee ballots to voters, without making them apply for one.
Major concerns about in-person voting include whether it’s safe to have people gather to vote and whether there will be enough poll workers to staff the precincts.
On Aug. 9, the State Board of Elections asked Hogan to allow alternate voting locations that would include about 360 voting centers made up of current polling locations and 282 public high schools.
Cogan wrote in the letter that the voting centers would be easier to staff with the ongoing shortage of election judges.
“The local Board of Elections’ ability to staff 360 vote centers on Election Day is greater than their ability to staff over 1,600 polling places on Election day, and the larger facilities make it easier to follow guidelines for social distancing and provide a safe voting experience,” he wrote.
The state board’s recommendation followed urging by the Maryland Association of Election Officials for a plan.
On Aug. 5, David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, sent a memo to Cogan and Linda Lamone, administrator of the State Board of Elections, urging state officials to have a “set-in-stone” plan in place for the election.
“We are making our final appeal to your decision making authority before we enter a period where no amount of backpedaling or last minute changes will avoid a catastrophic failure of the 2020 Presidential General Election,” he wrote.
Garreis outlined four of the association’s recommendations for conducting the election:
● Establishing voting centers
● Centralized vote by mail application processing center
● Canvassing returned vote by mail ballots 30 days before Election Day
● Making the vote-by-mail application deadline a week earlier
Nearly all of the 24 local election boards are “suffering a severe shortage of election judges constituting an emergency situation,” Garreis wrote, adding that the shortage was more than 14,800 judges.
In addition, 99 locations declined to allow their facilities to be used as polling places, he wrote.
Montgomery County could be among the jurisdictions affected if poll workers back out of working Election Day.
The County Council issued a resolution on July 28 that called for Hogan to mail ballots to voters, include prepaid return envelopes and provide touch-free drop off boxes for the ballots.
They criticized Hogan’s choice of mailing applications instead of actual ballots to voters.
They also requested the governor to allow a local Board of Elections to decide the appropriate number of early voting sites and polling locations to open.
Council Member Evan Glass noted at a meeting on July 21 that more than 90% of residents in the state voted with a mail-in ballot for the June primary election.
“To ignore that fact as we plan for our November election would be foolish,” he said.
Oct. 13: Last day to register to vote. Registration closes at 5 p.m. at offices and 11:59 p.m. online.
Oct. 20: Last day to request a mailed, faxes or web delivery mail-in ballot. Requests close at 8 p.m. by mail or 11:59 p.m. by fax or email.
Oct. 26-Nov. 2: Early voting is held each day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nov. 3, Election Day: Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; mail-in ballot submission deadline at 8 p.m.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.