The State Board of Elections is recommending that Maryland dramatically reduce the number of polling places for November’s election, opening just 360 voting centers statewide on Election Day, mostly in high schools.
Typically, Marylanders vote at roughly 1,600 polling places statewide. The proposed new voting centers, unlike polling places, could be used by any voter in a county.
The proposal, unanimously approved Friday, is a response to a shortage of people willing to staff polls amid the coronavirus pandemic. The recommendation goes now to Gov. Larry Hogan, who has the final say.
The board settled on the plan as a compromise between the positions of election rights advocates, who want the state to mail all voters a ballot to discourage voting in person amid the pandemic, and the Republican governor, who has ordered the state to hold a traditional election in November.
Hogan’s order, which local election officials are already in the process of implementing, calls for all precinct-based polling places and early voting centers to be open statewide. He also called for absentee ballot applications — not the ballots themselves — to be mailed to all voters.
A spokesman for Hogan did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Board of Elections landed on the compromise plan this week after hearing a final plea from local election officials who say they are 14,000 poll workers short of the total they need to open all polling places in November.
The board labored for hours discussing the deal during a meeting Wednesday and an emergency session Friday. The final number of voting centers approved was about 100 more than local election officials asked for.
While the state elections board has the power to consolidate existing precincts into fewer locations — with voters still needing to go to their assigned spot — the panel needs the governor’s approval to create voting centers that could be used by any voter in a county.
Local officials pushed the board to put the plan forward anyway.
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” argued Guy Mickley, Howard County’s director of elections. “The worst thing that can happen is someone says no.”
“I think we’re giving him a plan that has a significant amount of vote centers, a significant amount of vote days,” said state board member Patrick “P.J.” Hogan.
If the governor does not agree to the plan, the board would need to consider a slew of polling place consolidation requests from local officials. More than a dozen already have been submitted to the board. Local election directors say they would need consolidate polls to stretch the limited staff that they have.
Some of the requests are sizable. Anne Arundel County has proposed consolidating its 195 polling places to 105, while Howard County has asked to consolidate 90 to 36. Many of the state’s largest jurisdictions have yet to submit plans. Numerous local election board meetings are scheduled throughout August to consider such plans.
Hogan sent a letter to the state board Thursday evening warning against “wholesale” closures of polling places, arguing it would lead to voter suppression and disenfranchisement, particularly in minority communities.
Before ordering the traditional election, Hogan asked the state board to weigh in on the format of the November election. In June, the group deadlocked along party lines over two options: holding a mostly mail-in election similar to the state’s June primary or offering a hybrid plan in which voters are sent applications for mail-in ballots.
The board dismissed the option of holding a traditional election, citing concerns with election judge shortages.