The Montgomery County Board of Elections unanimously voted to send the state two proposals for a 12th early voting site — after it was ordered to suggest one.
One proposed location is the White Oak Community Recreation Center, which has been heavily endorsed by residents, voter advocacy groups, and county officials over the last few weeks.
But board chairman Jim Shalleck separately suggested the Nancy H. Dacek North Potomac Community Recreation Center, which he said was the preferred location for the board’s Republican-appointed majority.
The decision to send both proposals, amid weeks of disagreement between elected and appointed officials, would force the state to determine a final location for the facility.
The state Board of Elections got involved when local elected Democrats in Montgomery pushed for the White Oak site despite a vote by the local board’s Republican-appointed majority, which argued that a 12th early voting site isn’t necessary.
“They’ve cut us out,” Shalleck said at a local board meeting in Gaithersburg on Monday afternoon. “Since they’ve essentially overruled us about having a 12th site at all, we should send both options in fairness to all the residents of our county and let the state board make the final decision.”
Montgomery County is required to provide 11 early voting sites under state law. But a recent amendment to the legislation allows the local Board of Elections to approve an optional 12th site at a location of its choice.
Disagreement over the site has extended for weeks since the majority of the board originally voted not to establish an additional early voting facility in Montgomery County. In a meeting on Sept. 16, Shalleck argued that an extra site would be a needless expenditure for a county with 11 other early voting centers, all open for eight days before the election.
But supporters of the site, including District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, argued that a 12th early voting facility was vital for residents in White Oak. Voters in the area rely heavily on public transportation and are unfairly burdened by lengthy commutes and long wait times at nearby voting centers in Silver Spring and Burtonsville, proponents said.
“Many of my neighbors wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning and don’t get home until late at night,” White Oak resident Daniel Koroma said at the meeting on Monday. “So, when we talk about weekday traveling to early voting sites, that’s not always an option for them.”
Since the board’s decision in September, at least a dozen Democratic legislators have continued to advocate for an additional site in White Oak. U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who represents eastern Montgomery County as part of Maryland’s Third Congressional District, wrote a letter in support of the White Oak site this month. State Del. Eric Luedtke considered filing an emergency bill that would mandate a 12th location.
Hucker, along with County Executive Marc Elrich and seven other council members, appealed the decision to the state Board of Elections.
At an emergency meeting earlier this month, the state board ruled that Montgomery County must recommend a location for a 12th site. State board members declined to specifically support White Oak or any other site in the county, describing it as a jurisdictional decision.
In an earlier interview, state board administrator Nikki Charlson said the stalemate between the county’s Board of Elections and local officials put the state in an unprecedented position. When the law was changed to allow counties to select an optional early voting site, legislators intended for the local Board of Elections to make the decision in collaboration with the county’s governing body.
“We’ve never been in this position before,” Charlson 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.”
Before the emergency meeting, it was unclear what would happen if a county’s government disagreed with its local Board of Elections over an optional early voting site. When members of the state Board of Elections raised the question, state Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento said the legislation sides with local governments.
“My reading is that the state Board of Elections doesn’t need to get the agreement of a local board to establish an early voting center,” he added. “But it does need to have the agreement of the county’s governing body.”
That interpretation of the statute would give local legislators greater authority to establish or choose the location of an early voting site in cases when they disagreed with their local boards.
Shalleck said the majority of the board supported the Dacek Center for its proximity to the western part of the county, which has fewer early voting sites than more populous areas to the east and south. Four voting districts in that region have no early voting centers, including areas near Poolesville and Clarksburg.
Of more than a dozen residents who spoke to the local board about the early voting site on Monday, six specifically requested a location in the northern or western parts of the county, where they said a growing population would require greater access to election resources.
“If you’re talking about equity, the distance each voter has to travel should be an important part of where a new voting center is located,” resident Marcus Alzona said at the meeting on Monday. “Right now, a lot of people upcounty are driving miles just to cast a ballot.”
But supporters of the White Oak site, including county board secretary David Naimon, said the greatest concerns should be population density and wait times at existing polling places. On Election Day in 2018, voters in some parts of White Oak and Burtonsville spent more than an hour in line, despite numerous polling sites within a 10-mile radius.
Adding an extra site in the area would reduce those lines and increase access to early voting for more people, easing the wait on Election Day, Naimon argued.
The lack of consensus between legislators and the local board — and even among board members themselves — made collaboration impossible, Shalleck said. The local board voted to send both sites to the state for approval, with language to reflect that Dacek was supported by three voting members and White Oak by two.
“They can make the final decision,” Shalleck said of the state board. “That makes it clear that the county board and the county government cannot reach an agreement.”
The state Board of Elections will consider both site proposals at a meeting on Oct. 31.