This story and headline were updated at 7:50 p.m. Oct. 8, 2019, to correct a description of the Maryland State Board of Elections’ decision.
The Maryland State Board of Elections ruled on Tuesday that Montgomery County must recommend a location for a 12th early voting site for the 2020 elections — an issue that has divided elected and appointed officials in recent weeks.
The decision, made by a supermajority of board members, did not mandate a specific location for the site, a point that board Chairman Michael Cogan emphasized repeatedly throughout nearly two hours of testimony at an emergency meeting in Annapolis. Nor does it guarantee that the state board will ultimately vote to establish a 12th site in Montgomery County despite requiring the local board to pick a location.
That detail didn’t mar the excitement for advocates who spent weeks petitioning for a 12th early voting site in White Oak, an area in eastern Montgomery County with a majority black population.
The decision marked the latest development in a weeks-long disagreement between the Republican-appointed Board of Elections and Democratic county lawmakers, including District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, County Executive Marc Elrich, and several state delegates.
Elected officials, community activists, and the Democratic minority on the board have spent weeks petitioning for a 12th facility in White Oak, where many residents say they face barriers to voting. But in early September, three Republican board members voted not to designate a 12th early voting site in White Oak or anywhere else in the county, describing it as an unneeded expense.
The state board called the emergency meeting to address disagreements in Montgomery County and Baltimore City, where the local board of elections also declined to designate an additional early voting site, spurring the City Council to issue a resolution supporting a polling place in west Baltimore.
Montgomery County has 11 early voting sites, the maximum number required under state election laws. But a recent change to those regulations allows the county’s Board of Elections to designate an optional 12th site.
State board members said the vote on Tuesday didn’t require them to make a definitive decision on where a 12th voting site would be located in Montgomery County. But it does require the county board to recommend a location, which would then be subject to approval by state.
“I’m happy,” said Hucker, who began advocating for the White Oak site before the Montgomery County board voted in September. “I think it’s telling that the [state] Board of Elections, by bipartisan authority, voted to look at the data and direct our board to add an additional site.”
The location must be identified by Oct. 24 and sent to the state board for review before its Oct. 31 meeting.
David Naimon, a Democratic member of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said he would continue to advocate for White Oak as the most logical site.
“I tried to make that motion twice at our September meeting and those motions did not pass,” he said. “But now I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues to determine the best site for our residents.”
Naimon was one of six Montgomery County advocates who spoke in favor of a 12th early voting site — and White Oak, specifically — at Tuesday’s meeting. Arguments in favor of the site have followed the same lines since the local elections board raised the issue at its Sept. 16 meeting.
Both residents and representatives have cited long voting lines in both Silver Spring and Burtonsville, the next closest early voting sites for White Oak residents. Both locations are within six miles of the proposed site, but community activist Daniel Koroma said the distance still poses a considerable barrier for voters in the area.
“People in my community wake up at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock in the morning to take the bus to their first jobs,” he said. “More than 30% of people don’t have cars. And they can’t afford to take off work for hours to cast a vote.”
There is an early-voting period before each primary and general election. Voters may cast ballots at any early-voting site in the county. Those who can’t vote during the early period or on Election Day may be eligible to vote through an absentee ballot.
Hucker, whose district includes White Oak, also argued that an additional early voting site could help alleviate long lines at the polls on Election Day.
In 2016 and 2018, voters from the eastern part of the county spent hours in Silver Spring and Burtonsville, where the Marilyn J. Praisner Community Recreation Center attracted national attention for its long voting lines.
“In 2016, I was called to Praisner because there was a wait of up to 2 hours just to vote,” he said. “And some people had to leave without voting at all. Seniors and people with disabilities or people who just had to leave to go to work or pick up their kids.”
But arguments against the early voting site have also stayed consistent. Jim Shalleck, the chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, was the lone opponent to speak at Tuesday’s meeting. He argued that adding a site would be a needless expenditure in a county with 11 early voting facilities.
Those sites are open to all residents for eight days before the general election, Shalleck said — plenty of time for voters to make their way to the polls. An added site would cost $234,000 for the 2020 primary and general elections, in addition to the roughly $350,000 that local boards are required to spend next year to update polling precincts, he added.
“Our main concern was cost,” Shalleck said on Tuesday. “Our County Council already allocated $125,000 for additional equipment at precincts with the longest lines, and we felt this was a sufficient solution to the problem.”
Cogan and Republican state board member David Voelp grilled advocates on an earlier letter from Elrich, which Shalleck used to justify the majority’s decision.
In the letter, Elrich wrote that he supported an additional site for the general election, but had “concerns” over the cost and benefit of a 12th site for the primary. At a later press conference, the county executive clarified that he supported the site for both elections, but initially wondered if the additional voting equipment would address the issue of long lines.
Advocates used his later statement, referenced in a Bethesda Beat article, as a clarification of the board’s questions.
The Montgomery County Board of Elections will consider the location of a 12th site at its meeting on Oct. 21. Shalleck said he disagreed with the state’s decision, but would work with his colleagues to implement it.
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, as did four state legislators, including Sen. William Smith.