Daniel Koroma believes that voting is “sacred.” Born and raised in Sierra Leone, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2005, and said he sees the right to vote as the purest representation of what it means to be American.

In 2016, he heard that other residents of Montgomery County’s White Oak neighborhood were struggling to access early voting sites. So he used his Toyota 4Runner to drive as many of them as he could, recruiting other neighbors with cars to help.

In anticipation of the 2020 election, Koroma, 44, is pushing for a new early voting site in White Oak, a densely populated area that according to the U.S. Census, is more than 50 percent black and 22 percent Latino. The ideal location, he said, is the White Oak Recreation Center, less than two miles away from nearly a dozen rental properties, including the 1,119-unit Enclave apartments.

His efforts have drawn him into a months-long spat pitting Democratic lawmakers and activists in deep-blue Montgomery against Republican election officials, and giving rise to bitter accusations of voter suppression and political attacks. The controversy, in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, is among the most high-profile local examples of partisan interests shaping when and where citizens cast their votes.

In Troy, N.Y., the Republican-controlled county board of elections rejected attempts to establish an early voting site in a poor, diverse neighborhood, prompting state officials to step in. In Florida, students and activists are engaged in a legal battle to challenge laws that block early voting at college campuses — laws that, according to a federal judge, showed “a stark pattern of discrimination.”

As it has in other jurisdictions nationwide, early voting has become increasingly popular in Montgomery in recent years. Last year, 114,609 ballots — about 28 percent of the total — were cast before Election Day. The county has 11 early voting sites, chosen by a local elections board. While the suburb is fiercely Democratic, Maryland law mandates that the party of the sitting governor, Larry Hogan (R) in this case, has a majority on local election boards.

In August, County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5) launched a campaign for a 12th early voting site in White Oak. The county Board of Elections voted along party lines to reject the request, a verdict that Hucker slammed as the “very definition of voter suppression.”

Democratic officials appealed to the state Board of Elections, which seemed initially to support a 12th site. But after a dramatic, four-hour negotiation in Annapolis, the Republican-led panel voted to stand by its local counterpart.

“It was incredibly disappointing,” said Koroma, who works for the Montgomery County government as a business liaison officer. “These are people who don’t even know our neighborhood.”

Many White Oak residents juggle two jobs and only get one day off a week, he said, making it hard for them to vote on Election Day. Most do not have cars, and have to take two or three buses to get to the closest early voting sites in Burtonsville or Silver Spring. On weekends, when buses run less frequently, casting an early ballot can require a four-hour commitment.

“It is not that we’re being lazy,” Koroma said. “We’re doing all this work for the county, for the state. Why can’t they make it easier for us to vote?”

“It boggles my mind,” said Fatmata Barrie, 47, another resident of White Oak who drove neighbors to early voting sites in 2018. “You have all the evidence to show why we need this site here.”

Maryland’s early voting sites are open for a week before an election, including on Saturday. On Election Day, voters must go to their assigned precincts, but during early voting, registered voters can cast a ballot at any early voting site in their county.

Jim Shalleck, who chairs the county elections board and was the 2014 Republican candidate for Montgomery County executive, said he opposes the 12th site because of cost, not politics. Each site costs about $234,000 to operate for the primary and general elections, Shalleck said.

County Executive Marc Elrich (D) says the county is willing to foot the bill, but Shalleck said the board is “trying to watch the taxpayers’ expenses.”

In the wake of the state board’s decision, state Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) drafted an emergency bill that would mandate a 12th voting site in the county.

If the county were to add a 12th site, Shalleck said, he believes it should not go to the eastern part of the county, where there are already four early voting locations, he said. He and the board’s two other Republican members instead suggest a community center in North Potomac — a wealthier, more sparsely populated part of Montgomery whose residents are far less likely to rely on public transportation.

In 2015, following a proposed remapping of early voting sites that similarly elicited calls of voter suppression, Shalleck told The Washington Post that Potomac “has wanted a site, and they’ve never gotten one.”

Now, Shalleck argues that if state officials are determined to add an early voting site in White Oak, they should also add one in North Potomac.

“Yes, two is better than one,” he said.

Koroma scoffed at the idea. “Really?” he asked. “People in Potomac are struggling to vote compared to people in White Oak? Sure. Fine.”

A public hearing on Smith’s bill is scheduled for Dec. 9.

Several White Oak residents intend to attend, though they say the drawn-out political battle is pushing them to take matters into their own hands. Koroma, Barrie and others have already started to recruit more volunteers to drive neighbors to early voting sites next year.

“I think about what it took for people like me to get the right to vote,” Koroma said one recent afternoon. “As black people, as immigrants . . .” His voice trailed off.

“There’s something special when we go to the polls,” he continued. “It’s personal.”