The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Policy change lets Maryland elections officials use ‘voting centers’ instead of polling places

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). (Brian Witte/AP)

Facing an unprecedented shortage of poll workers due to the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland is poised to adopt a limited number of “voting centers” rather than traditional precincts as a way to streamline in-person voting in November.

On Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) relented on his earlier directive to open every precinct across the state for “a normal” election, a plan that had sparked a revolt among election judges unwilling to put their health at risk to volunteer at the polls.

Nearly 40 percent of poll worker jobs were vacant as of last week, leading election officials to beg the governor to let them abandon neighborhood polling precincts in favor of large voting centers that could process far more voters with fewer election judges. Maryland has never conducted an election this way before.

While Hogan told elections officials he worried fewer polling locations could lead to long lines and potentially disenfranchise voters, he nonetheless issued a proclamation Monday granting them the permission they sought to change course.

“I remain very concerned,” Hogan wrote in a brief letter warning them to quickly get applications for mail-in ballots to every registered voter.

“Expeditiously mailing the ballot applications, encouraging voting by mail, and protecting early voting options will be critically important steps needed to lessen the problems created by your decision to close the vast majority of polls,” he said.

The voting center plan requires formal approval of the State Board of Elections, which meets Wednesday. Hogan has given it power to create roughly 360 “voting centers” instead of more than 1,800 precincts. Voters can cast a ballot anywhere in their home counties, rather than needing to show up at an assigned location. The voting centers would be housed in every single public high school, along with big community centers and other locations.

Hogan noted the switch amounts to closing 80 percent of the traditional public precincts, which he had hoped to keep open to disperse crowds over multiple locations on Election Day. Limiting in-person voting options, Hogan said, could create crowds and “unsafe conditions.”

The five-member State Board of Elections voted unanimously Friday to seek Hogan’s permission to create voting centers after the nonpartisan bureaucrats that run Maryland’s election said the poll worker shortage was getting worse and could create an unworkable fiasco.

“No one wants anyone to have a bad experience on Election Day. No one in the elections community wants to see anyone disenfranchised,” David Garreis, the president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, told the board last week as he pushed for the voting centers.

“What we’re giving you is what we’re confident is the best possible solution to conduct this election,” he said.

Maryland saw record turnout after it mailed ballots to every registered voter for the June 2 primary, but it also saw hours-long waits at the limited number of polling places open for in-person voting. Along with the delays, some voters never received ballots, others received multiples, and some Spanish-language ballots were sent to English speakers.

Hogan has told elections officials that it was an “unmitigated disaster.”

In early July, he directed them to send applications for mail-in ballots — not the ballots themselves — to every registered voter. Elections officials said they expect the applications to arrive at the homes of voters in the third or fourth week of August.

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

Almost 4 in 10 election-judge jobs in Maryland are vacant. Officials are begging Hogan to change his Election Day plan.

Despite pandemic, Hogan orders ‘a normal election’ for November