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In rural Howard County, some voters will have to travel twice as far to cast early ballots this year

A ballot drop box sits outside Marriotts Ridge High School on Sunday, Oct. 18. The high school in Marriottsville is the farthest west option Howard early voters will have in person this year and is 10 to 15 miles away from many of the county’s westernmost voters.
A ballot drop box sits outside Marriotts Ridge High School on Sunday, Oct. 18. The high school in Marriottsville is the farthest west option Howard early voters will have in person this year and is 10 to 15 miles away from many of the county’s westernmost voters. (Erin Hardy / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

After the fifth early voting site in Howard County was announced at the end of August, some voters, especially in the western part of the county, were left wondering why the options seemed less accessible to them.

Like most things in this tumultuous year, the answer can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Guy Mickley, director of the Howard County Board of Elections.

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If the early voting sites in the county had stayed the same as in previous years, Mickley said, what happened wouldn’t be a question. In the past, early voting sites included the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, 3 miles west of Marriotts Ridge High School, the farthest west option Howard early voters will have this year. The high school in Marriottsville is 10 to 15 miles away from many of the county’s westernmost voters.

“The only reason we had to change anything this year was because of COVID-19,” Mickley said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have touched a thing.”

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Howard County voters will have five in-person sites to choose from come the last week of October when early voting starts: Marriotts Ridge High, Meadowbrook Athletic Complex in Ellicott City, Long Reach High School and Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, and Reservoir High School in Fulton.

In the 2018 election, the four early voting sites were the Howard County Fairgrounds, Bain 50+ Center in Columbia, Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City and Ridgely’s Run Community Center in Jessup. Mickley said, however, none of those options were conducive to necessary COVID-19 safety measures for the turnout of the general election so the county election board had to plan accordingly. The fairgrounds, which overall offer a large amount of space, did not give the Board of Elections a large enough space to run socially distanced voting from, Mickley said.

“I needed spaces I could space people out, and the only place you could really do [that] is high schools with cafeterias, gyms and auxiliary gyms,” he said.

The sites now not only have to be socially distanced but also have to comply with existing requirements, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, and ensure there are no connectivity issues between voting machines and the state at each of the locations.

The long distance from an early voting site for some Western Howard voters doesn’t violate state policy, as Maryland requires that no fewer than 80% of a county’s registered voters live within a 5-mile radius of an early voting site; in Howard, that number is 94%, according to Mickley. At this point, there is no way to change one of the early voting sites to a new location and Howard County doesn’t meet state population requirements that would have enabled it to add a sixth site.

So while some voters may have to travel twice or three times the distance they normally would, the county Board of Elections has surpassed the state requirement, Mickley said, and the inaccessibility for some voters is just part of the early voting system.

These decisions leave longtime Lisbon resident Rhonda Winkler 13.3 miles from the nearest early voting site at Marriotts Ridge High.

Winkler, 51, runs Steel Fire Farm, also in Lisbon, and reached out to County Council member David Yungmann when she saw the list of early voting sites. Yungmann, the sole Republican on the council, represents the western part of Howard County, where Winkler lives.

Winkler said living in a rural area that has faced previous issues with the United States Postal Service, now exacerbated by the pandemic, made her wary of voting by mail; like most years, she plans to vote in person. Residents in Maryland had until Tuesday to request a mail-in ballot for this year’s general election.

“Every vote is supposed to count, so I want to make sure my vote is counted,” Winkler said. “I think if every vote is supposed to count, then the sites should be put in places convenient for everyone. I know we’re way out here, but we’re still citizens of Howard County. We should have the same access that everyone in Howard County does.”

District 5 council member David Yungmann represents the western part of Howard County.
District 5 council member David Yungmann represents the western part of Howard County. (Baltimore Sun Media Group file)

Yungmann, who said he’s received complaints from other constituents about the early voting sites, sees the decision as disproportionately disenfranchising Republican voters. “You just made it a heck of a lot easier for other people,” he said.

“You dropped another location [at Wilde Lake High] in the Democratic stronghold,” Yungmann said. “You’ve hurt one side more than the other. You suppressed western, likely Republican, votes and you’ve made it easier for Columbia Democrats to vote. It’s the combination of both that I think is even more problematic.”

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John Willis, former Maryland secretary of state and current executive in residence at the University of Baltimore School of Public and International Affairs, said registered Republican voters in Howard County are located mostly in the western areas.

District 5, which encompasses the western part of the county, has one-third of all registered Republicans in the county, according to data from the county Board of Elections. Overall, 23% of Howard’s approximately 229,000 registered voters are registered Republicans.

“We know that people tend to go [vote] where it’s convenient to them. The closer they live to an early voting center, the more likely they are to go to one,” Willis said.

The state mandates that counties with more than 200,000 registered voters but fewer than 300,000 registered voters — as is the case in Howard County — must have four early voting centers. Every county in the state is also entitled to establish an additional early voting center if the Maryland State Board of Elections, the local board and the governing body of the county agree. On Aug. 27, after the four initial sites were chosen, County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, wrote the state board asking to add a fifth early voting site in Howard County at Wilde Lake High.

Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan organization that works to ensure that Maryland voters have the greatest amount of access to voting, questioned the decision to not have an early voting site in the western part of Howard.

“No voter should have to go far. There’s not public transportation available [in the western part of Howard County] as there is in Montgomery County, for example,” Antoine said.

Public transit in Howard County is mainly served by the Regional Transportation Agency, which provides fixed route and paratransit services within Howard, Anne Arundel County, Northern Prince George’s County and the city of Laurel. In Howard, RTA bus routes focus on Columbia and the eastern part of the county.

Guy Mickley, right, director of Howard County's Board of Elections, talks with board members in 2018.
Guy Mickley, right, director of Howard County's Board of Elections, talks with board members in 2018. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Antoine also expressed concern that while many voters visit the polling site closest to their homes, many also vote during their workday or while they’re running errands, meaning they could be anywhere in the county when they choose to vote early.

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“We need to be thinking beyond who just lives in that area. We need to be thinking about who is in the county,” Antoine said.

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Along with the early voting site, there are nine drop box locations scattered throughout the county where voters can drop off their ballots through Election Day. Thewesternmost box is at Lisbon Elementary School near the Carroll County line.

Mickley acknowledged that while the number of residents in Howard County with an early voting site in a 5-mile radius is less than perfect, on Election Day that number will be 99%.

“Early voting is convenience voting,” Mickley said. “On Election Day, I guarantee they have a site within 5 miles.”

For in-person voting from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day, Howard County voters will have 17 voting centers to choose from. Unlike in past years, voters will be able to cast their ballots from any center in the county on Election Day, rather than being required to vote at a specific polling location. Voting centers in Western Howard include sites at Glenelg High School, River Hill High School and Lisbon Elementary.

Throughout all seven days of early voting, Mickley said, he will staff the five sites with 35 election judges per day per site. Early voting will be available from Monday through Nov. 2 (including Saturday and Sunday) from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“We’re staffing it like we could get massive amounts of people at any time,” he said. “I don’t know when they’re going to be coming, but we’re ready for them.”

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