Early voting will begin Oct. 26 and continue until Election Day, the Maryland State Board of Elections decided Wednesday.
The early voting sites will be offered as part of the board’s plan to shift this fall’s election to voting centers, rather than offer polling places during the coronavirus pandemic. After receiving Gov. Larry Hogan’s blessing earlier this week, the board is executing the plan, which will replace the state’s typical 1,600 neighborhood polls.
Voting centers can be used by any voter in a county or jurisdiction. Polling places are limited to the voters of the precincts assigned to those sites.
The plan calls for about 80 early voting sites statewide. Those sites will be open for eight days from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, the same hours offered at voting centers on Election Day, the board decided Wednesday.
Before the pandemic, the state had scheduled early voting for eight days, from Oct. 22 through Oct. 29, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Local election directors sought to limit the early voting window, stressing concerns about minimizing the time when election judges might contract COVID-19.
Election board members said they understood the concerns, but some risk is involved in offering any in-person voting during the public health crisis, they said.
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“Not to be flippant, but we could go to the extreme and say, ’Well, we shouldn’t be open at all and then we have no risk,‘” said Patrick “P.J.” Hogan, vice chair of the board. He is not related to the governor.
The voting center plan is how the elections board reconciled the competing views of the governor, who called for a traditional election in November, and voting rights advocates, who wanted ballots automatically mailed to all voters across the state. Absentee ballot applications will be mailed to all voters this month, but not the ballots themselves.
In-person voting plans have been plagued by an anticipated shortage of election judges. The majority are older adults, making them more susceptible to COVID-19. As of last week, local election directors said they were 14,000 judges short of the 25,000 needed to operate a traditional election.
The governor granted the State Board of Elections the authority Monday to switch to the voting center plan, but warned the board he remains “very concerned” about the plan’s “potential of creating long lines and unsafe conditions, with crowds of people being forced into too few polling places.”
The board approved a motion Wednesday requiring state officials and local election directors to submit proposed voting center locations for approval.
Board members also instructed the state election staff to investigate the possibility of offering more ballot drop boxes as another way to reduce the number of people inside voting centers. Currently, the state has 75 boxes and another 52 have been ordered. About 15% of voters who participated in the June primary used the boxes.