The Maryland Board of Elections told Montgomery County officials Thursday to try again to resolve their differences over the location of early voting sites for 2016.
The five-member state board failed to muster the 4-to-1 super-majority required to approve a controversial proposal by the county Election Board to relocate one of its nine early voting sites from downtown Bethesda to Potomac.
The 3-to-2 state board vote was along party lines, with the GOP majority mirroring its counterparts on the local Montgomery board. All local election boards are majority Republican since the inauguration in January of Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
David McManus, chairman of the state board and a Republican, offered no guidance to Montgomery officials, other than to “reconsider” its plan and to do it quickly. The state faces an Oct. 28 deadline for finalizing the location of all early voting centers.
Montgomery board members said they would take the matter up at a regularly scheduled meeting Monday. The state board agreed to hold a special meeting next Friday to consider whatever plan the county board comes up with.
Typically, approval of early voting sites is a pro forma matter. The state board routinely defers to a local board’s wishes.
But the county board roiled local politics last month when it voted 3-to-2 along party lines to move balloting from the Marilyn J. Praisner Community Recreation Center in Burtonsville to the Longwood Community Recreation Center in Brookeville, about 13 miles to the northwest.
The panel also voted to change a second early voting site, shifting from the Jane E. Lawton Community Recreation Center in Bethesda to the Potomac Community Recreation Center on Falls Road, about 10 miles to the northwest.
Board President James Shalleck, a Republican and a Hogan appointee, said the relocations were intended to improve the “geographic diversity”of the county’s early voting sites. The other sites are in Silver Spring, Rockville, Germantown, Gaithersburg, Damascus, Wheaton and Aspen Hill.
But Democrats cried foul, charging that Republicans were seeking to suppress the vote by shifting early balloting from Praisner, a site that served low-income communities along U.S. 29, and from Lawton, located in the heart of a densely populated business and residential center that is easily reached by mass transit.
About 35,000 county residents cast early ballots in the 2014 general election.
Shalleck tried to calm the storm by leading a GOP vote Wednesday evening to keep the Paisner site and drop plans for early voting at Longwood. But Democrats called the compromise an unsatisfactory half-measure.
Both sides replayed their arguments Thursday for the state board. Democrats said there was no legitimate reason for relocating the site in Bethesda, which is far more populous than Potomac, with 15,000 more voters living in the vicinity.
“This is about simple math,” said Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D), who represents both Potomac and Bethesda. “Do you want more voters or less voters?”
But state board chair McManus and other Republicans were not persuaded, pointing out that the Lawton Center had the seventh-lowest turnout of the nine early voting sites in 2014. McManus also cited a regulation that requires the board to give deference to localities on early voting location questions.
“We aren’t in a good position to be second-guessing those determinations,” McManus said.
But when state board Democrats Patrick Hogan and Bobbie Mack voted against the Montgomery plan, blocking a super-majority, confusion took hold.
The board’s legal counsel initially told members that they needed to keep deliberating until they came to agreement. But after 25 minutes in closed session, the state board said it would punt the matter back to Montgomery.