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Amid Postal Service concerns, D.C. region dramatically expands ballot drop boxes

A voter places a ballot in a curbside drop box in College Park, Md., during the June primary. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Elections officials in the D.C. area are moving quickly to boost the number of ballot drop boxes for the coming election, aiming to expand socially distanced voting options amid the coronavirus pandemic and an assault on mail voting by President Trump.

The Montgomery County Board of Elections has asked Maryland to approve a plan that calls for 40 drop boxes, up from two or three in a normal year. Prince George’s County requested 36 additional secure drop boxes from the state last week. There will be at least 50 ballot drop-box locations scattered throughout the District starting in early October, with at least five drop sites per ward, according to the D.C. Board of Elections.

And Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has proposed allowing localities to set up drop boxes in his state, as well.

Jim Shalleck, president of the Montgomery elections board, said the changes there were “directly generated by the news and the public discourse about the slowdown of the mail.”

The Postal Service recently notified nearly all states that it may not be able to deliver ballots in time for them to be counted. Amid a national uproar, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said Tuesday that he was suspending a number of changes underway at the agency that critics had said threatened the ability to handle mailed ballots.

Postmaster general reverses plans to make changes ahead of election

But the controversy, along with Trump’s vows to block emergency funding for the postal agency, has left “people feeling more comfortable putting their ballots in a drop box than in the mail,” Shalleck, a Republican appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to lead the five-person board, said Monday.

In the past month, Shalleck said, he and other board members have received dozens of emails from Montgomery residents and public officials requesting drop boxes in their neighborhood or expressing concern about relying on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their mail-in ballot.

The State Board of Elections is set to review Montgomery’s plan Wednesday.

Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots

The county would install the drop boxes at 11 early-voting centers, 25 public high schools, the Rockville municipal building, the elections board building and the Leisure World retirement community.

Voters from the county would be able to drop their ballot off at any location except for Leisure World, which would be reserved for residents of that complex. The drop boxes would be under 24-hour surveillance.

The cost of purchasing and delivering the boxes is about $120,000, which the county elections board hopes to split with the state, Shalleck said. Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass (D-At Large) said more drop boxes would be ideal, though he recognizes that they might be in short supply.

“President Trump is clearly trying to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service so that mail-in ballots won’t be counted,” Glass said. “We can circumvent the Postal Service with drop boxes.”

The county has also made changes to in-person voting, in line with state guidelines recently approved by Hogan. There will be large voting centers instead of neighborhood precincts; residents can vote at any location. Early voting will start on Oct. 26 and will be conducted daily from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Nov. 2. On Election Day, Nov. 3, voters can cast ballots in person at any early-voting center or public high school.

Other local elections boards in Maryland are in the process of approving their voting plans or having the state sign off on them. Some say they want to add drop boxes but have concerns over the cost.

“My budget is shot,” said Armstead Jones, election director for Baltimore City, which used 15 drop boxes with 24-hour surveillance during the June primary, with a price tag exceeding $70,000.

“Cities can’t just keep bearing the brunt of these costs,” Jones said. “The state needs to help.”

The state elections board did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Montgomery’s board also voted Monday to approve two new Election Day voting locations, at the White Oak Community Recreation Center and the Nancy H. Dacek North Potomac Community Recreation Center.

Shalleck and the two other Republicans on the board voted last year against adding White Oak as an additional early-voting site, despite pleas from residents and advocates who said lower-income and newly naturalized voters in that part of the county needed more convenient voting options.

Daniel Koroma, a White Oak resident, said it was “a colossal failure” that officials decided against adding an early-voting site in his neighborhood, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau is more than 50 percent Black and 22 percent Latino.

It is “better than nothing” that the board decided to add it as a voting location on Nov. 3, he added.

Glass and Koroma both slammed Hogan’s decision to send applications for mail-in voting to all eligible voters, instead of ballots, echoing criticism made by Democratic lawmakers on the state level.

Koroma said the decision could mean more low-income and newly naturalized voters opt to vote in person, possibly exposing themselves to the novel coronavirus.

As of Monday, more than 90,000 Montgomery voters had requested mail-in ballots, Shalleck said. It is already higher than a typical election year, but the board is hoping to urge even more voters to vote by mail.

Once state officials approve the county plan, the board will need to start making arrangements to execute it, such as buying protective equipment for election judges and ensuring there are adequate pens and cleaning supplies for each early-voting station.

“Nobody has ever voted like this in Montgomery County or in the state,” Shalleck said. “We’re concerned — it’s our top concern — that there’s going to be confusion.”

Michael Brice-Saddler and Rachel Chason contributed to this report.

Residents of a mostly minority neighborhood say they need an early-voting site. Republican officials disagree.

Hogan says he tried to expand access to voting. Instead, he sparked a revolt.