The State of Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled Thursday that three Republicans on Montgomery County’s Board of Elections improperly held a private conference call in which they discussed strategy for early voting locations.
Compliance Board members Jonathan Hodgson and April Ishak found that, despite the election board’s complicated rules for what constitutes a quorum, the conference call held by Board of Elections President Jim Shalleck and two other Republican members did constitute a quorum and should have been an open meeting.
The seven-member county Board of Elections includes five voting members and two substitute members. According to state law, three of the voting members must represent the same political party as the governor.
“We have concluded that three voting members, a majority of the voting members of the elections board, constitute a “quorum” for purposes of the Act such that a conference call among three voting members constituted a meeting subject to the Act,” wrote Hodgson and Ishak in the decision. “We have recognized that applying the Act’s quorum definition to the elections board is complicated, and this matter posed the unusual circumstance in which the public body’s own definition, when applied, did not secure the public’s right to observe every stage of the public body’s consideration of public business.”
In September, after the election board voted 3-2 along party lines to replace early voting sites in Chevy Chase and Burtonsville with sites in less populous Potomac and Brookeville in 2016, local Democrats alleged the move was made to prevent Democrats from voting.
At a County Council hearing, Shalleck told council members he and two other Republican members of the election board took part in a phone call with Michael Higgs, the chairman of the Montgomery County GOP, before the September vote in which they discussed early voting site locations.
That led Silver Spring resident Paul Bessel to file a complaint with the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board that the phone call violated Open Meetings Act law.
On Oct. 19, after almost a month of blistering attacks from county Democratic leaders, Shalleck and the Board of Elections unanimously agreed to reinstate the Chevy Chase early voting site with the understanding state legislators would seek permission for a tenth early voting site that would be placed in Potomac. The election board had previously agreed to reinstate the Burtonsville early voting site.
The Board of Elections will be required to acknowledge the violation in its next meeting, wrote Hodgson and Ishak.