Gov. Larry Hogan has approved a plan to offer just 360 voting centers across Maryland for the November election despite what he said were “serious concerns” about the proposal.
Hogan’s decision, issued via a proclamation late Monday, gives the State Board of Elections authority to proceed with the voting center plan as an alternative to opening about 1,600 polling places this fall.
The voting centers, unlike polling places, could be used by any voter in a county, and would be placed primarily at public high schools across the state.
The state board voted unanimously Friday to recommend the plan in response to lobbying from local election directors, who said they would not be able to staff a full complement of polling places in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of last week, the local boards were short by about 14,000 election judges, and committed judges were continuing to drop out, local officials reported.
Local officials have been surveying election judges since early July, when Hogan called for all precinct-based polling places to be open statewide. He also called for absentee ballot applications — not the ballots themselves — to be mailed to all voters.
The board settled on the voting center plan as a compromise between the positions of election rights advocates, who wanted the state to mail all voters a ballot to discourage voting in person amid the pandemic, and the Republican governor, who called for the traditional election.
However, the board did not have the power to implement the plan. Maryland remains in a state of emergency, a designation that gives Hogan control over the state’s election format.
In a letter to the board of elections Monday, Hogan granted the board the necessary authority, but said 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.”
“Expeditiously mailing the ballot applications, encouraging voting by mail, and protecting early voting options will be critically important steps needed to lessen the problems caused by your decision to close the vast majority of the polls,” Hogan wrote.
The governor has scolded the board repeatedly for not immediately complying with his order to mail the absentee ballot applications. The board approved the language for the application last week, and was due to send it to a printing company days later. The applications are expected to be mailed by Aug. 28, election officials said.
The board’s voting center plan calls for 360 centers to open across the state on Election Day, most in public high schools and others in the state’s early voting centers. About 80 early voting centers would open before the election, likely around Oct. 29, according to a letter the board sent Hogan.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which advocates for voting rights, said the governor’s decision is only a partial victory toward planning a secure and accessible election. Even with the counties able to operate fewer voting centers — instead of every single precinct — there still may be a shortage of election judges and long lines of voters, she said.
”We’re still concerned that the local boards won’t be able to staff all of these locations,” she said.
Common Cause will continue to press the Board of Elections and the governor to mail ballots themselves to all voters. The group has a meeting with Hogan’s office Wednesday to make its case.
“We are encouraging voters to apply for their absentee ballot online if they can, because that will reduce the workload for the boards of elections. If they have to process millions of paper applications, that’s going to gum up the process.”— Ralph Watkins, League of Women Voters volunteer
The ACLU of Maryland is also still lobbying the governor to mail ballots to all voters. Amy Cruice, the ACLU’s election protection director, said mailing ballots would help alleviate the concerns the governor has.
”I read the governor’s letter and I think we have an answer to this,” Cruice said. “We can all stop worrying about lines and confusion and disenfranchisement if we mail the ballots.”
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Cruice noted that when ballots were mailed to voters for the June 2 primary, 97% of the votes cast were done through the mail. If that were repeated for the fall — perhaps 90% mail-in votes and 10% in-person votes — then the 360 voting centers could safely handle the in-person voters, she said.
Had Hogan not approved the plan, the Board of Elections was poised to move forward with county-specific poll consolidation plans that would have required voters to vote at a particular location where their existing precinct was moved.
Some of the consolidation requests were sizable. Anne Arundel County had proposed consolidating its 195 polling places to 105, while Howard County asked to consolidate 90 to 36.
Ralph Watkins, a volunteer and former vice president with the League of Women Voters, said he’s hopeful that elections officials will be able to staff the smaller number of voting centers.
The governor’s decision is “a recognition that there was no way the local board of elections could secure enough workers to staff all local polling places,” Watkins said. “That would have resulted in long lines and probably mistakes due to inadequate staffing. That would have just been unacceptable.”
Watkins said he hopes voters will appreciate the voting centers, because they will have the ability to vote at any center in their county that’s convenient. Even so, Watkins said the League of Women Voters is encouraging people who are unsure about voting in person to go online now to request an absentee ballot.
“We are encouraging voters to apply for their absentee ballot online if they can, because that will reduce the workload for the boards of elections,” Watkins said. “If they have to process millions of paper applications, that’s going to gum up the process.”