ROCKVILLE — Democrats in Montgomery County are crying foul over a Republican plan to close two early-voting sites, calling the proposal an attempt at "voter suppression" they vow to fight in Annapolis.
The dust-up in Maryland's most populous county could portend partisan conflict in other jurisdictions because every election board in Maryland now has a GOP majority after Republican Larry Hogan became governor this year.
The Montgomery fight broke out after the county election board voted 3-2 along party lines last month to close early-voting sites in populous Burtonsville and Bethesda-Chevy Chase and open new ones in the less densely inhabited areas of Brookeville and Potomac. The board chairman says the move was aimed at bringing "geographic diversity" to the nine county locations where voters can cast ballots before Election Day.
Democrats say the new sites are in more GOP-friendly communities with fewer minority voters.
The brewing controversy took a surprising turn Thursday when the election board chairman told a County Council committee that he and two GOP colleagues held a conference call with the chairman of Montgomery's Republican Party Central Committee. Republicans said the call — from which Democrats were excluded — was legal, while Democrats called it a breach of the state open meetings law.
Montgomery Democrats say they'll fight the plan to close the two voting sites at the State Board of Elections and, if necessary, will take the battle to the legislature.
So far, the move in Montgomery is "unique," said state Democratic Party Executive Director Pat Murray, but the party is prepared to fight any "voter suppression" efforts elsewhere.
"A big point of importance is to put the other 23 jurisdictions on notice that this will be under the microscope and will be challenged where it occurs," he said.
Democrats were especially put out over the elimination of the Burtonsville site in the east county. They said it is the second-most-active of the county's early voting sites and the one with the most minority voters. Republicans countered that during the last presidential election it was the least active site and therefore the most logical to close for the 2016 election.
Following the council meeting, Democratic members held a news conference to denounce the plan to move the two sites. They were joined by Democratic legislators and a variety of groups representing minority voters, including the county NAACP and Casa of Maryland.
But Alexander Vincent, a Republican on the election board, said there was no justification for the "hateful" things being said about the GOP representatives on the Democrats' Facebook page. He said reasonable people can disagree about which are the best sites.
"We shouldn't be deluded into thinking that the nine sites that were picked by the majority Democrat board in 2013 were the most fair, just and equitable solution ever devised by the mind of man," Vincent said.
Jim Shalleck, who was installed by Hogan as Montgomery's election board chairman, told the council committee that the plan to shift two centers was for "geographic diversity." Under questioning, he acknowledged there would be fewer voters within five miles of an early-voting center than previously.
Shalleck said Republican activists wanted to reduce the number of early voting sites in the county to fewer than seven, but the election board disagreed. "They're not happy with what we did," he said.
The county board's recommendation now goes to the state election board, which is scheduled to meet Oct. 15. Republicans hold a 3-2 advantage on that board as well, but state law requires a 4-1 majority to take any action.
Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy director of the board, confirmed that it could not approve the Montgomery plan without four votes. She said it was unclear what would happen if no motion won a supermajority.
If the state board doesn't stop the move, Democratic legislators plan to introduce legislation in the next session of the General Assembly to overturn the action.
Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery Democrat, said he believes the county's entire 32-member legislative delegation — all Democrats — would support legislation to increase the number of early voting sites to 11, restoring the ones that were closed.
Madaleno said he believes such a bill could pass early in the session with enough votes to override a Hogan veto if necessary.
Even if the matter ends at the state board, the fight it generated could move to other state venues.
Councilman Tom Hucker, a Democrat who represents Burtonsville, said he plans to file a complaint with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board about the conference call with the Republican Party leader. Democrats on the county election board said they never got together to discuss board business when they were in the majority because of advice from counsel it would be improper.
Shalleck said the conference call was legal because members taking part did not constitute a quorum. The board's bylaws require one member of the minority party to be among the three needed for a quorum.
Nevertheless, political scientist Todd Eberly of St. Mary's College called the Republican case a "stupid defense."
"They should be doing everything they can to avoid putting a target on their backs," he said.
Eberly said the GOP board's decision played into the hands of the Democrats, who hold every partisan office in the county.
"If you're a Democrat and you want to get your voters excited, you scream 'voter suppression,'" Eberly said.
While early voting is increasing popular, Eberly said, it has done nothing to increase overall turnout because it simply cannibalizes the Election Day vote while adding costs. He described the battle between the two parties as "nonsense."
"They're both behaving badly," he said. "They're both playing politics and neither is doing anything that helps the voters."