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Local election officials in Maryland look at slashing number of polling places due to election judge shortage

As local election officials in Maryland grapple with how to implement Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's edict to hold a traditional election this fall, they're turning to the option of consolidating polling places. In this 2018 photo, Howard County elections board director Guy Mickley goes over some guidelines with Election Day workers in Columbia.
As local election officials in Maryland grapple with how to implement Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's edict to hold a traditional election this fall, they're turning to the option of consolidating polling places. In this 2018 photo, Howard County elections board director Guy Mickley goes over some guidelines with Election Day workers in Columbia. (Nate Pesce / For Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Howard County Election Director Guy Mickley’s numbers already didn’t look good. Within a day, they grew bleaker.

Mickley started Monday with 491 people signed on to serve as election judges Nov. 3, about a third of what he needed. By the time the county election board met at 4 p.m., that number had dropped by 12. Judges were calling to pull back their pledges to participate, he explained, as the coronavirus pandemic waged on.

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“We are not going to recruit 700 people. It’s not going to happen,” Mickley told the election board. “We cannot sustain 90 individual polling places with judges like this.”

Moments later, the board unanimously approved Mickley’s proposal to slash the number of polling places in Howard to 35.

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Local elections directors across the state face the same problem as they grapple with how to implement Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision for the state to hold a traditional election this fall. Hogan’s July 8 announcement directed elections officials to open all polling places, as well as early voting locations. He also ordered elections officials to mail all voters applications to request absentee ballots.

Hogan rejected the idea of repeating the format used in Maryland’s June 2 primary. In that case, Hogan ordered ballots, not applications, to be mailed to all eligible voters. Voters participated in the election in record numbers, with 97% making use of the ballots mailed to them. But Hogan last week called the outcome “an unmitigated disaster,” citing late-arriving ballots and lines at the few in-person voting centers.

His choice of a traditional election for the fall prompted local election directors to sound an alarm, warning it would be impossible to staff such an election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also fretted that precinct locations they’ve used for years, such as those at senior centers and schools, will be off-limits this time due to efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Now, surveys of election judges have begun to reveal the scope of the anticipated shortage, and directors are looking at ways to stretch the staff that they have, while abiding by the governor’s wishes.

Howard’s drastic consolidation proposal is among the earliest to emerge, but Mickley argues it won’t be the last. He told his board that almost every jurisdiction across the state is considering such measures. Even Maryland’s Eastern Shore counties, which run much smaller operations, have been hit by a shortage of poll workers, he said.

Katie Brown, election director for Baltimore County, said her staff has tried targeting teachers, school bus drivers, and state and county workers to serve as election judges, to little avail. Brown said she’s putting together a proposal to cut the county’s approximately 230 precincts by about 60 or 70.

“I just don’t have enough workers,” she said.

Other directors, however, have concerns about scaling back. Armstead Jones, the Baltimore City elections director, said he’s trying to figure out whether large-scale consolidation falls within the spirit of the governor’s plan.

”It’s a feasible and viable alternative,” said Jones who opens polls at about 300 precincts normally. “I’d like to know if what’s being said is kosher. … To me, it’s not what we were asked to do.”

Donna Duncan, assistant deputy for election policy with the Maryland State Board of Elections, said there are no limitations on consolidation of polling places, although there has never been a reason to do so on a widespread basis.

Howard’s proposal will have to go before the State Board of Elections for review on an emergency basis, Duncan said. Ultimately, the state board will decide whether the drastically scaled-back offering of voting locations is tenable and meets the spirit of Hogan’s request.

The board next meets Aug. 5.

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Asked whether the governor would oppose consolidation of polling places, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said it will fall to the state board to make a legal determination on the issue.

Duncan said that while there is no statutory deadline to make decisions about emergency precinct consolidations, local election directors need to act quickly. There are administrative deadlines for preparing materials that need to be sent to each polling place and for preparing ballots. State law sets an Aug. 31 deadline to certify the ballots, although it can be done earlier. Printing can begin Sept. 3.

Paula Troxell, deputy director of elections for Carroll County, said at least one other county may be presenting an option as drastic as that of Howard. The Carroll elections board will meet Wednesday to discuss cutting polling locations from 36 to 12 — a proposal guided by a “constant revolving door” of election judges, she said.

Carroll officials have an extreme shortage of judges, particularly chief judges, Troxell said. Those are the senior officials who typically run a precinct. State officials have not given any guidance on how many or few polling places may be consolidated, but ultimately, it will be about staffing, not anyone’s opinion, she said.

“If you don’t have people to serve, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks,” she said. “You can’t open a building when there’s nobody there to service the voters.”

Hogan promised to assist local election boards with finding needed judges, including encouraging state employees to help.

His administration sent a letter Tuesday to state workers asking them to consider serving. Budget Secretary David Brinkley wrote that in prior elections, the state authorized up to eight hours of administrative leave for employees who worked as judges on Election Day. He said they are upping that to 16 hours this year. Workers can also receive additional hours for serving at early voting centers.

Jones said the incentive is a good thought, but he doesn’t think it will fix all the local boards’ problems. He’s worried state employees still will not want to spend so much time outside their homes and around other people.

”Some folks may see the dilemma and decide to come and help,” Jones said. “You have to try something.”

John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who runs the city’s election judge training program at the University of Baltimore, said such incentives have been offered before. He expects any success will depend on how hard the coronavirus is hitting Maryland come fall.

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