Election apparitions: These Maryland 'ghost' precincts have no polling places or voters

You may or may not believe in ghosts, but if you live in Maryland, chances are you’ve encountered a few without realizing it.

At a Baltimore Orioles game, for example. Or while walking in the city’s Wyman Park Dell, or observing the wildlife at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel. Maybe you’ve driven to the “Jones Thicket Ghost,” named for a road in Dorchester County where it can be found.

Maryland has 54 “ghosts” — 51 scattered across ten counties, plus three in Baltimore.

Ghost precincts, that is — voting precincts that, on Tuesday, will have no polling places, no election judges and will report no results. This is because these are areas where no voters live.

Maryland’s 54 ghost precincts, by county

How ghosts are born

Most of Maryland’s ghost precincts were created as a result of the last redistricting, when political boundaries for legislative, congressional and councilmanic districts were redrawn based on population data from the 2010 U.S. Census. After redistricting, voting precinct boundaries were also re-assessed and, if necessary, redrawn.

Prince George's County, whose nine school board districts are sometimes distinct from its nine councilmanic districts, has 27 ghost precincts, more than five times any other jurisdiction. Election officials must consider all of these lines when they draw precinct boundaries, said Donna Duncan, assistant deputy for election policy at the state Board of Elections.

For example, an area that had previously been represented by one district could have been moved to another. In that case, it would have a different ballot than many of its neighbors, meaning it would need to be its own precinct. Even if it had no residential addresses, election officials would have had to assign a precinct number, creating a “ghost.”

Like ghost precinct 02-006 in Harford County — a tiny field in Aberdeen where nobody lives. Local election officials might know 02-006 better by its nickname, “the dog,” because of the animal it resembles when combined with precinct number 02-007 directly to the north, said Dale Livingston, deputy director of Harford County’s board of elections. Precinct 02-007 is the dog’s head and 02-006 the feet, she said.

Why is the dog’s head severed from its body? Because precinct 02-007 is in councilmanic district D, while the ghost precinct 02-006 is in councilmanic district E.

“We have to create [the ghost] in case someone moves into that piece of property,” said Livingston.

Ghost busters

People have moved into ghost precincts at least once in recent years. In Prince George’s, the precinct formerly known as “ghost 21-093” was “dissolved” in September of last year, when residential addresses turned up in the precinct following new construction, said Daneen Banks, deputy administrator of the county’s board of elections. The old ghost was combined with a larger precinct, she said.

That’s less likely to happen in Baltimore’s precinct 21-005, which contains Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The stadium is not zoned residential, and it would be a red flag to register to vote with a Camden Yards address, said Abigail Goldman, deputy director of the Baltimore City Board of Elections.

Nor would it possible for voters to turn up in Anne Arundel’s precinct 04-099, which is part of the Patuxent Research Refuge.

For Anne Arundel County Del. Michael Malone, ghost precincts are spooky remnants of gerrymandering. Creating ghosts is “part of how you get around ‘What do you do?’ when you want to connect two areas through a thin slice of landmass for the purpose of having a gerrymandered district,” he said, referring to precinct 04-099 in particular, which helps connect the Anne Arundel and Prince George’s portions of the 4th congressional district.

“There’s really no use for them” otherwise, he said.

Ghosts in the spreadsheet

From an election security standpoint, Maryland’s ghost precincts are mostly harmless — it is impossible to cast a vote from a ghost precinct because ghost precincts do not have polling places. In many official reports, it’s as if they don’t exist.

Some ghosts are so sneaky that they don’t even show up on the state’s list of precincts and polling places by county. (Some counties, such as Wicomico, do not use the term “ghost,” but rather refer to their unpopulated precincts as “special” precincts.)

“It always causes confusion,” said Dan Oltman, polling place manager at Anne Arundel’s board of elections. “Within our own database, we’ll hide them so that they don't come up on reports,” he said. Anne Arundel has two ghost precincts, neither of which show up in the spreadsheets provided by the state.

The state doesn’t comprehensively track ghost precincts because those areas do not report election results, said Natasha Walker, project manager of election management systems at the state board of elections.

In other parts of the country, ghost precincts have shown up on reports, only to wreak mischief on election night. In the 2016 presidential primary, news outlets were reluctant to report statewide results for Kentucky, because preliminary records from Kenton County said all precinct results for the county were in, but only reported numbers for 105 out of 107 precincts. Two of the county’s precincts, it turns out, were ghosts. They had been included in the totals, but were not listed separately.

The next round of redistricting will happen after the 2020 Census. Once the governor and state legislature have agreed on district boundaries, precinct lines will likely also need to be redrawn.

Some election officials are hoping for fewer ghosts the next time around.

“It does make our job a little harder because we have to create these little areas that are nothing,” said Livingston.

czhang@baltsun.com

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