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Montgomery board backs down from early voting plan

The new GOP majority on the Montgomery County election board had proposed closing two early voting centers and opening new ones regarded by some as friendlier to the GOP.
The new GOP majority on the Montgomery County election board had proposed closing two early voting centers and opening new ones regarded by some as friendlier to the GOP. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Democrats claimed a victory Monday as the Montgomery County Board of Elections backed down from a plan that would have closed an early voting site in the party stronghold of Bethesda and replaced it with one in a less populous but more GOP-friendly community.

The Republican majority on the county board instead agreed to a compromise plan that urges the General Assembly to give Montgomery an additional early voting site, to be located in Potomac.

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The unanimous vote capped a dispute that gained statewide attention because of its implications for other counties now that Republicans control majorities on all local election boards.

The State Board of Elections last week blocked the county board's earlier plan to close the Bethesda site and replace it with one in Potomac. After the plan failed to receive the four votes necessary for approval, the five-member state board asked the county board to craft a new proposal.

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Democrats hailed Monday's board action as a victory.

"This decision is great news for voters in Montgomery County and the health of Maryland's democracy," said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who represents much of the county and is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

James Shalleck, the Republican chairman of the county board, called the action a victory for both sides.

"Out of all this dispute, the voters won because they got a tenth early voting site," he said.

In fact, whether the tenth site opens in time for the April 26 primary depends on whether the legislature approves a bill early in next year's session, which begins in January. Members of the county's all-Democratic legislative delegation have agreed to push for such a bill.

The county board's action Monday restores both of the sites the GOP majority originally voted to drop last month — Bethesda and Burtonsville. That vote set off protests from Democrats and others that the decision was based more on politics than population — a charge Montgomery Republicans denied.

Before they took the plan to the state board, Republicans on the county board agreed to keep the center in Burtonsville — a site with a large proportion of minority voters. But that didn't satisfy the two Democrats on the state board, who pointed out that the Bethesda location had 20,000 more voters within 5 miles than the site in Potomac, one of the state's richest communities.

Republicans gained the majority on the Montgomery board — and those of Maryland's other 23 jurisdictions — after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan took office. Hogan was also able to name three Republicans to the five-member state board, but state law requires a super-majority of four for that body to take any action.

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