The Maryland Board of Elections considered a recommendation that would again change the format of the November election, but ultimately delayed a final decision — days after being chastised by the governor for “two months of delay and deflection.”
The board was scheduled to consider nearly a dozen proposals from local election boards Wednesday for the consolidation of polling places as a result of a statewide election judge shortage in the midst of a pandemic.
Instead, the board entertained an impassioned plea from David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, who asked the board to change course on a plan to open as many polling places as possible and instead open a limited number of voting centers — places where any county resident can vote, regardless of their precinct.
That would be the best way to address the lack of judges and avoid confusing voters, he said.
“Failure to give us some of the tools that we need to be successful is going to put the outcome of the entire election in doubt,” Garreis warned the board.
Board members adjourned a 3.5 hour meeting without making a decision on the proposal, pledging to return to the discussion on Friday. But even a decisive outcome from the board may not be enough to change the format of the upcoming election.
Maryland remains under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak, a designation that gives Gov. Larry Hogan control over the election process.
Hogan already has entered his decision on the election. In July — after the board of elections deadlocked in its first attempt to issue a recommendation on the election’s format along party lines — Hogan, a Republican. called for a traditional contest in November with all of the state’s standard polling places and early voting sites open for business. To minimize lines and the spread of the virus, the governor also called for absentee ballot applications to be sent to all voters — a shift from the format of the mostly vote-by-mail primary the state held in June. Hogan called that election an “unmitigated disaster.”
A public outcry followed the governor’s decision. Voting rights groups and Democratic leaders have spent the last month lobbying Hogan to change his mind, arguing the plan is destined for failure amid the pandemic. Local election officials began making plans to drastically consolidate polling places by up to two-thirds in response to a shortage of more than 14,000 committed election judges statewide.
Hogan clapped back at the proposals earlier this week in a letter to state Election Administrator Linda Lamone, accusing election officials of voter suppression and “disenfranchisement on a significant scale.”
Board members were poised to consider several consolidation plans Wednesday, but were stalled by the plea from local election directors who delivered a three-page letter to the board earlier in the day. The election judge shortage continues to worsen, the directors argued, noting that 1,300 committed judges have backed out since last week.
“We are making our final appeal to your decision making authority before we enter a period where no amount of backpedaling or last minute changes will avoid a catastrophic failure of the 2020 President General Election,” the group wrote.
In their final proposal, the local election directors unanimously requested the state open existing early voting locations, of which there about 80 statewide, plus two additional sites per county. Board members were initially concerned that such a plan would not offer enough locations.
But the group coalesced around an alternative proposal from board Vice Chairman Patrick “P.J.” Hogan who suggested opening locations at the state’s 282 high schools. Many of the proposed poll consolidations already include plans to use high schools, Hogan noted, because they are large, centrally-located, have ample parking and are close to transit routes.
Garreis said he believed the local election boards would be able to staff 282 locations. State officials said there would be technical hurdles to overcome with such a plan, but agreed it was possible.
“282 sounds a lot better to me,” said Hogan, who disclosed to the board that he’s lost sleep over the existing election plan. “It’s a reach, but it’s well below the 1,838 precincts. It’s still a lot of places people can go and vote.”
The board did not discuss a suggestion from local election directors to limit the window in which the proposed voting centers would be open. The directors requested the centers open on Oct. 29, while early voting across the state is currently slated to begin Oct. 22.
Chairman Michael Cogan and board members Malcolm Funn and William Voelp signaled they may support the voting center plan, enough to form the four-member supermajority needed to make such a recommendation. But the group also acknowledged, before delaying a decision until Friday, that a change to the election format would require a change of heart by the governor.
“We’re not out of time, but we’re all but out of time,” Cogan said. “We need to pull this stuff together. We need to make a decision on it, and we need to transmit that decision. We’re going to need to request authority to do these things.”
The board of elections is scheduled to reconvene at 2 p.m. Friday to discuss the vote center recommendation.