Montgomery County Board of Elections President Jim Shalleck acknowledged Thursday that the Republican-controlled panel’s decision to move two early voting sites reduced the total number of registered voters living within five miles of an early balloting location.
Maryland regulations require that at least 80 percent of the county’s registered voters live within a five-mile radius of an early voting site.
The board’s 3-to-2 vote on Sept. 21 angered members of the all-Democratic Montgomery County Council, who accused Shalleck, appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), of manipulating location of the sites for partisan advantage. The council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee grilled him on Thursday for 90 minutes.
Under state law, the party controlling the governor’s office holds the majority on local election boards.
Shalleck also told the committee under questioning that he’d consulted by phone with Montgomery County Republican Chairman Michael Higgs about the change of sites. Hogan has appointed Higgs to the Maryland Public Service Commission.
Shalleck, an attorney and former New York prosecutor who was the Republican candidate for Montgomery County Executive in 2014, flatly denied any attempt at voter suppression.“There was absolutely, and I repeat this, absolutely no intent to suppress anybody’s vote,” he said.
He also angrily rejected the suggestion that the board’s decision was made with guidance from the governor, who is being treated for cancer.
“The last thing I’m sure Larry Hogan was thinking about was early voting sites in Montgomery County. We should be praying for the governor, not criticizing him,” Shalleck said.
The board voted to move two of the county’s nine early voting sites. Early balloting at the Marilyn Praisner Community Center in Burtonsville, which serves high-poverty East County communities along U.S. 29, was shifted to the Longwood Community Recreation Center in Brookeville, 13 miles to the northwest.
The panel also moved early balloting from the Jane Lawton Community Recreation Center in Chevy Chase, about a half-mile from the Bethesda Metro station, to the Potomac Community Recreation Center, on Falls Road, 10 miles to the northwest.
The seven other early-voting sites were retained by the board. They are in Silver Spring, Rockville, Germantown, Gaithersburg, Damascus, Wheaton and Aspen Hill.
Shalleck said his goal was to achieve “geographic diversity” by bringing early voting to communities where it had not been available. He added that he’d attempted to place a site in Leisure World — the Olney retirement community that is one of the state’s Democratic strongholds — but could not secure permission.
He also noted that every site with the exception of Damascus was in a majority Democratic area. Democrats have a 3-to-1 registration advantage in Montgomery County.
The Burtonsville site was the second most heavily used in the 2014 general election, drawing 4,988 voters. A total of more than 8,000 cast early ballots in Burtonsville and Chevy Chase, more than 20 percent of Montgomery’s total.
An analysis of census and voter registration data by Democratic political consultant Adam Pagnucco, published Wednesday in the Seventh State blog, concludes that the site changes improved voting convenience for Republicans and some groups of white and high-income residents while decreasing access for African Americans and lower income residents in the East County. The Brookeville area, just north of Olney, is one of the few parts of the county where Hogan won outright last year, he noted.
“It’s hard to believe that the board was acting blindly,” Pagnucco wrote. “Suppression or not, this has the look of manipulation for partisan gain.”
Council members charged that the board’s decision undermined the main goal of legislation that established early voting.
“We’re all public officials,” said Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At-Large). “And as you know the main point of all this regardless of what party you’re associated with is to enhance voter participation. That is the bottom line issue. The real issue is how do we make this easier for people, not more difficult.”
David Naimon, a Democratic board member, told council members that in 2014, 93 percent of registered voters lived within five miles of an early voting site. Under questioning from Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) Shalleck acknowledged that the changes of location would reduce that percentage.
“Does the net effect of your decision result in more registered voters living within five miles of one of the early voting centers, or fewer?” Riemer asked.
“It’s fewer,” Shalleck said.
Naimon and Mary Ann Keefe, the board’s other Democratic members, said they had no advance notice that Republicans were considering the shift in locations.