Democrats on the state elections board voted Thursday to block a plan by Montgomery County Republicans to move one of the county's nine early voting sites to a more GOP-friendly area.
The state board's three Republicans voted for the plan, but it fell short of the 4-1 supermajority that was required to make change.
The board's action was closely watched by both parties for its potential effect on other jurisdictions. Under state law, the GOP gained majorities on all 24 of the state's local elections boards when Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor.
The vote of the State Board of Elections did not give either party a clear victory. Rather, it created a deadlock that it is required to break by Oct. 28. The state board directed the Montgomery County elections board to reconsider its action and return with a new proposal by the end of next week. It was not clear Thursday what would happen if the state board deadlocked again.
The county board voted 3-2 last month to move two early voting sites from densely populated, heavily Democratic Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Burtonsville to more Republican-friendly Brookeville and Potomac.
The plan set off howls from Montgomery's dominant Democrats, who hold every partisan elective office in the county. Many said the move was a form of voter suppression, intended to hold down the turnout of minorities in particular.
Montgomery County Republicans denied any such intent.
"Our goal was not to diminish votes," county elections board Chairman James Shalleck said. "It was to whip up interest."
The matter came to a head during a hearing of a Montgomery County Council committee at which Shalleck acknowledged that he and two fellow Republican board members had met privately with the chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee to discuss board business. Democratic board members were not invited.
The board's Democrats filed a complaint with the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board accusing the GOP members of violating the law.
Under pressure to reconsider moving the polling places, the county board voted Wednesday not to close the Burtonsville site, which is located in a largely African-American area of the county. The board did vote 3-2 to close the Bethesda site and open one in Potomac.
Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker, a Democrat, rejected the amended plan. He told the state elections board that it would close a busy site near a Metro station and move it to a less populated, more affluent area where residents are overwhelmingly likely to have cars and transit options are few.
Hucker said many Bethesda residents depend on public transit.
"Nobody claims moving it to Potomac will make it easier for a larger number of people to vote," he said.
Republican county board members said they were trying to improve geographic diversity and bring early voting to a part of the county that hadn't had it before.
The three Republican members of the state board argued that they were obliged to defer to the judgment of the local board.
"We are not in a good position to be second-guessing those recommendations without clear evidence it's arbitrary or capricious," said Chairman David J. McManus Jr.
But Democrats on the state and county boards said the GOP-backed plan shifted early voting from a site with 65,000 nearby residents and a booming employment center to affluent Potomac with 45,000 residents and few jobs.
"If you're poor, you don't want to go there," said Elbridge G. James, representing the county chapter of the NAACP. "It is intimidating,"
There is little chance the move of an early voting site would make much difference in Montgomery, where the last Republican incumbent was ousted in 2006. But Maryland Democrats have been watching the case because for its potential effect on other jurisdictions.
After the state board kicked the issue back to the county, Democrats and Republicans on the Montgomery board pledged to work together to come up with a plan both parties can support.
"We'll try to work it out together," said Shalleck.