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Maryland’s State Board of Elections convened an emergency meeting yesterday and overruled the Montgomery County election board’s decision not to open an additional early voting site. WTOP has more:
Montgomery County’s Board of Elections will have to revisit its decision against adding a 12th early voting site after state elections officials took action Tuesday.
The Maryland State Board of Elections held an emergency hearing in Annapolis to decide whether it should step into the debate and require Montgomery County to identify a possible location for a new site.
The county board decided against adding a new early voting location, citing the cost, Montgomery County Board of Elections Chair James Shalleck explained to state officials.
“Our election director calculated that it would cost approximately $117,000 for the primary, and then another $117,000 for the general election,” Shalleck said.
The site in question is White Oak, in the eastern part of the county:
In support of adding the 12th early voting center is Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker, who believes the new site should be in White Oak, in the eastern end of the county.
Hucker, who previously served in the Maryland General Assembly, helped write the state law that established early voting in Maryland. He explained that early voting in Montgomery County now makes up nearly 28% of the total vote.
He told the state elections board that a new early voting center is needed in White Oak and cited demographics — and logistics — to make his point.
“White Oak is home to many low-income voters, many African-American and immigrant voters, and many seniors, many of whom don’t have cars,” Hucker said, adding that 35% of the residents in White Oak don’t own cars.
He said the nearest early voting center in that area of the county is in Burtonsville, a 41-minute trip by bus with no service on weekends.
Hucker added that a new early voting center would cut wait times at the two nearest sites where, in 2016, the waits stretched up to two hours at the Burtonsville site.
“I personally spoke to many voters who had to leave without voting,” he said.
Local residents had spoken in favor of the additional site as well:
Springbrook High School student Michael Solomon testified in favor of adding a new early voting site. The high school senior told the members of the state board that residents in his community deserve a chance to have early voting sites that are more accessible and convenient.
Solomon said the area is home to many young people, working class residents and senior citizens.
“When we are denying these new young voters, as well as senior citizens and working class people in White Oak — who rely on public transportation access to an early voting location that isn’t unreasonably far away — that’s sending a clear message that their vote and their voices do not actually matter,” Solomon said.
One key issue in the state board’s vote was the desirability of overriding local decision-making on administrative matters like early voting:
After the testimony from witnesses finished, the state Board of Elections voted 4-1 to require Montgomery County elections officials to nominate a new site.
The one dissenting vote on the state board came from board member Kelley Howells, who was one of three board members participating by phone. After listening to testimony during Tuesday’s hearing, Howells told her colleagues she was reluctant to have the state board intervene in what she said should be a local decision.
Howells didn’t see grounds for the state to take action and said: “I don’t know of any evidence of fraud or corruption. The only thing I’m hearing is that the people who didn’t get what they wanted are really, really unhappy.”
Howells added, “When I hear the insinuation that local board members are acting out of animus towards black voters, that does not win me over. That has just the opposite effect. I know these people, and it makes me angry.”
Like Howells, Maryland State Board of Elections member William Voelp said he was reluctant to take a position on what should be a local matter.
“I don’t like the idea of overriding a local board,” he said, but added, “On the other side, I want to make sure that everybody has the ability to vote.”
The County now has a few weeks to pick the additional site, which the state board will consider and approve at the end of the month:
As a result of the vote by the State Board of Elections, the Montgomery County board will have to submit its nomination of a new site by Oct. 24. The state board would then vote on the issue at its regularly scheduled meeting Oct. 31.
This dispute illuminates how siting of voting locations is a difficult task, requiring a delicate balance between ensuring voter access and managing limited financial and logistical resources. Stir in the always-challenging relationship between state and local government and it’s easy to understand the strong feeling on both sides here. It’ll be interesting to see what site the County picks – and if that puts the controversy to rest. Stay tuned …