Dozens of elected officials and community leaders gathered at White Oak Community Recreation Center on Monday to continue advocating for a yearslong goal: an early voting center there.
Council President Tom Hucker led an event attended by other council members, state officials, and local organizers who have long argued that the center is a good early voting location because of demand at nearby sites in Burtonsville and Silver Spring.
After about two years of debate pitting a Republican majority on the county Board of Elections against Democratic elected officials, the issue is back because of a state bill that passed during the 2021 General Assembly session. The bill changes the formulas for the number of early voting centers allowed in each county, allowing Montgomery to expand from 11 to 13, and possibly 14.
Early voting sites are open before primary and general election days. Residents may vote at any early voting site in their county. On Election Day, they usually must vote in their local precinct, although in 2020, they could go to any voting center in the county.
Mail-in balloting is an option instead of voting in person.
Advocates have pushed for the chance at a White Oak early voting site for at least two years — lobbying before the county and state boards of election and through legislation in Annapolis.
One factor, Hucker told supporters assembled on Monday, is that up to 35% of people who could use the center don’t have access to a car. He and others said having a White Oak center would show that Montgomery County is increasing ballot access, compared to states enacting new voting restrictions, like Texas and Georgia.
In September 2019, the county Board of Elections ㅡ along party lines, with a Republican majority ㅡ chose not to add a 12th early voting site, saying it was an unnecessary expense. Democrats hold every seat at the county level, but the board of elections majority must reflect the party of the governor. Gov. Larry Hogan is a Republican.
Council and state leaders appealed to the state Board of Elections, which upheld the local decision.
The state board later decided not to have a 12th early voting site in Montgomery County at either location.
In 2020, the Montgomery County delegation tried to pass a bill requiring a 12th early voting site and that it be at White Oak. The bill failed.
In the 2021 session, Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Burtonsville) sponsored the bill that changed the formula statewide, based on population in a county. It passed.
Luedtke said Monday that residents must continue to voice their support for the site as an early voting location.
“Voting is not just a right. … It is the right within which all other rights flow,” Luedtke said at Monday’s event.
Several community leaders spoke in support of the site, including White Oak residents Fatmata Burrie, Daniel Koroma and Rachael Evans.
Koroma said in an interview that voting is “sacred,” a right people in other countries die for. He mentioned the struggle for access in his family’s native country of Sierra Leone.
Many in White Oak need to take the bus to Silver Spring or Burtonsville and wait in long lines to vote, which is tougher on weekends, when bus service is less frequent, Koroma said.
Evans, who is taking over soon as the chair of Friends of White Oak, said she can travel anywhere for early voting. But many neighbors can’t while they work multiple jobs or care for children, or because they can’t get to other sites, she said.
She disagreed with the local Board of Elections’ previous decision to open an early voting site in North Potomac, saying more people fought for one in White Oak.
“You’re pretty much expected to have a car in North Potomac,” Evans said. “They don’t really rely on public transportation, because there is no public transportation [in that area].”
Nahid Khozeimeh, a Republican board member, said in an interview Tuesday morning that the North Potomac site made more sense than White Oak for an early voting center. The nearest one for upcounty residents was near Gaithersburg.
“Our goal is to have the whole county to have access to a voting center, and we did not have anything in that area,” Khozeimeh said.
She declined to say whether she would support White Oak as an additional voting center now, noting she was waiting for the public hearing in September.
On Monday, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Silver Spring) encouraged people to testify for White Oak before the county Board of Elections at that public hearing on Sept. 18 at 10 a.m. at the Council Office building in Rockville.
The board will have a public comment session at its regular meeting on Sept. 20 in Gaithersburg, then have a final vote on early polling sites on Oct. 18.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com