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10 Harford high schools could be used at voting centers in November election after plan approved by Gov. Larry Hogan

Harford County’s 10 public high schools could be used as voting centers for the Presidential Election, where anyone could vote, regardless of their precinct, under a proposal unanimously approved Friday by the Maryland State Board of Elections.

On Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office announced he had issued a proclamation giving the board of elections the authority to follow through with its plan, though he had misgivings about closing a large number of the polling places — which could cause lines and crowds — and continued to call for mailing absentee ballot applications quickly.

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“My only direction to you, under existing law, was to expand and encourage voting by mail by immediately mailing absentee ballot requests to every voter,” according to a letter sent Monday. “The Board’s recent decisions make this more important than ever.”

The plan would convert Maryland’s public high schools — or an equivalent number of 282 places — for in-person voting and opening early voting sites for an approximate total of 360 locations to vote on Nov. 3.

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The plan was contingent on Gov. Larry Hogan granting the board the authority to circumvent the usual rules.

After some discussion Friday, the board concluded it may as well ask the governor for approval and will prepare a letter to the governor requesting approval for the plan.

“He is either going to do it or he is not going to do it,” board member Patrick “P.J.” Hogan, no relation to the governor, said at the meeting.

A representative for the Harford County Board of Elections declined to speak to the specifics or feasibility of the proposed plan Monday.

The Maryland Association of Election Officials’ has estimated that November’s election would have the highest turnout of any Presidential Election in Maryland’s history, with 85% of its approximately 4 million registered voters turning out. The association projected that half would vote in-person and half would vote by mail.

Though local boards of elections had unanimously favored the association’s plan to open 162 voting centers statewide, multiple jurisdictions were prepared to consolidate polling places amid a stark shortage of election judges across the state.

Harford would have shrunk from 63 precincts to 34 if it were forced to consolidate, acting director of the Harford County Board of Elections Kimberley Slusar wrote to the state board.

Already, 400 Harford County election judges have opted out of the November election as fears of the coronavirus circulate. Many of the judges — who usually return year over year — are older, putting them at greater risk for developing a serious case of COVID-19.

Slusar wrote that 662 judges on record in the county are at least 60 years old, Slusar wrote in an email. Harford County typically requires 816 judges to run an in-person election smoothly; fewer, Slusar wrote, would result in longer lines at polling places.

Hogan offered additional administrative leave to state employees who wished to work as election judges, but 14,000 positions were still vacant statewide, the state board reported Wednesday.

Maryland Association of Election Officials president David Garreis argued at Friday’s meeting that voting centers would decrease voter confusion compared to counties’ plans to consolidate their voting sites. In reducing the number of places residents can vote, local boards would have to notify voters of their new locations. Voting centers, as places where anyone living in the county can vote, would eliminate that and realize a savings on the pecuniary and time costs of notifying voters, training judges and staffing multiple centers, Garreis said.

Harford County government has been working with the county’s board of elections because its facilities are used as polling places on election day and for early voting. The county is also working with the board to use the McFaul Activities Center in Bel Air as a training site for election judges, county spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

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P.J. Hogan, the vice chair of the state elections board, said that high schools fit the ticket for voting centers: they are population-based, spacious and well-connected to roads. The question of whether local boards of education would allow use of their facilities given their schedules for opening schools was a topic of discussion at Friday’s meeting.

“Any board of education around the state that doesn’t assist us in this, shame on them,” Hogan said.

Earlier in the meeting, the the elections board considered the Maryland Association of Election Officials’ plan of opening voting centers at 162 Maryland high schools for the November election — a similar course of action to what the board ultimately approved. That plan, Garreis said at Friday’s meeting, would enable local boards to run the election efficiently while complying with public health guidelines.

That plan would have placed eight voting centers in Harford County.

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