A bill to require a 12th early voting site in Montgomery County was heard in Annapolis on Wednesday as state delegates sharply questioned local election officials who testified against the legislation.
The debate, months in the making, put the president of the Montgomery County Board of Elections on defense as he fielded questions on a split vote not to establish an optional 12th site.
Montgomery County is required to provide 11 early voting centers, but a recent change in state law allows the local Board of Elections to approve an optional 12th site.
The county board’s Republican majority voted 3-2 in September not to create an early voting center in White Oak, despite calls from community activists and the county’s elected officials.
Early voting centers are open for eight days before the primary and general elections. Any registered voter in the county may cast a ballot at any early voting site.
Board President Jim Shalleck has repeatedly emphasized that the majority voted not to establish a 12th site anywhere in the county based on fiscal concerns.
“When we decided no, we didn’t do it against White Oak,” Shalleck told the House Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis on Wednesday. “We took that position for all of Montgomery County.”
The vote sparked a months-long appeals process as advocates and elected officials worked to overturn the local board’s decision. In October, the Maryland Board of Elections ruled — after two consecutive hearings — to uphold the local board’s authority.
Less than a week later, Montgomery County Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Burtonsville) announced legislation that would mandate a 12th early voting center in Montgomery County.
The bill has since been amended to specify the location as the White Oak Community Recreation Center and to stipulate that the bill would only extend through the 2020 elections.
“The goal of the bill is to deal with the immediate problem this year,” Luedtke said in a phone interview on Thursday. But the heated debate, and subsequent legislation, has prompted a larger conversation over how local boards are appointed and whether the legislature should establish a process to overturn unpopular decisions.
In October, Maryland Board of Elections member William Voelp suggested amending state law to require a supermajority vote for local board decisions. He said the change would force the board’s majority members to work with the minority, limiting appeals back to the state board.
Other legislators have pointed out that the current appointment process — with local board members selected by the governor — can result in majorities that don’t represent a county’s political leanings. But at Wednesday’s hearing, Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-North East) questioned whether a local bill was the best way to address broader concerns with the makeup of local boards.
“There are statewide implications, too,” he told Luedtke on Wednesday. “My concern is that you’re basically usurping the responsibility of the Board of Elections. In essence, you’re saying that any time the board makes a decision that you don’t like, you’re going to come in and codify a decision that is contrary to the powers of that board.”
Luedtke responded that the General Assembly already set a precedent in 2016 by approving a local bill that established a 10th early voting site in Potomac.
On Thursday, Shalleck argued that the 2016 bill was brought to the legislature through a collaboration between the board’s majority and minority, who decided that the county would establish an additional site in Potomac in exchange for retaining existing early voting locations in Burtonsville and Bethesda.
“That was by agreement,” Shalleck said in a phone interview on Thursday. “This year, the legislature wants to add a site by overruling our decision. That, to me, sets a precedent.”
But his arguments received little sympathy on Wednesday from members of the Ways and Means Committee, many of whom questioned the majority’s vote against an optional site despite repeated requests from a largely black and immigrant community.
Proponents of the bill have consistently argued that existing early voting centers in Silver Spring and Burtonsville do not meet the needs of low-income residents in White Oak, who rely on public transit to access the sites.
Community advocate Daniel Koroma told committee members that it took an hour on weekends to commute by bus from White Oak to the Silver Spring Civic Center. The county does not operate a weekend bus route to the Marilyn J. Praisner Community Recreation Center in Burtonsville.
“In terms of bus service, it’s legitimately not good in that corridor,” Shalleck told the committee. “So, why doesn’t [County Executive] Marc Elrich pick up his phone and call his transportation guy — or gal — and say, ‘For 8 days, I want more buses more routes,’ and make it work?”
That led Montgomery County Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Silver Spring) — whose district includes White Oak — to ask Shalleck if he endorsed busing minority voters to faraway precincts to cast their votes.
“You’re saying, instead of allowing the people of that area to have a site in their community, you’d rather just have them bused and not have the right to access their ballot in an easy way?” she said.
“In this day and age, we know the history of putting sites far away where people cannot access them,” she continued. “That’s part of why we had to pass civil rights legislation around voting. What it sounded like I heard you say is that people of color in that area should have a bus take them, while others are able to walk in their community in order to access their voting sites.”
Shalleck said Thursday that he was “disappointed” by many of the questions from the committee.
The board’s majority has consistently maintained that its decision was driven by concerns over the cost of establishing a 12th site, in addition to a directive from the state to spend an additional $349,000 on closed-data networks for same-day voter registration.
Shalleck has pointed out that if residents can’t drive or take public transit to an early voting site, the state lets them request an absentee ballot for any reason.
On Tuesday, the committee advanced a bill by Montgomery County state Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Rockville) that would rename absentee ballots as mail-in ballots — in part to address the confusion.
At the end of the contentious hearing, Shalleck questioned why legislators made a 12th early voting site optional if many seemed to view it a democratic necessity.
“Madam Chair, why give us an option at all?” Shalleck asked Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Silver Spring).
“You guys don’t get to ask the questions,” she replied. “We do.”