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Does it matter where we put voting centers? Howard County result is cautionary tale for November

Lois Bennett of Columbia prepares to load her ballot into the scanner at the Howard County Fairgrounds as voting judge Craig Woods watches during a 7th Congressional District special election April 28. Bennett is voting in-person after she accidentally threw her mail-in ballot into a dumpster.
Lois Bennett of Columbia prepares to load her ballot into the scanner at the Howard County Fairgrounds as voting judge Craig Woods watches during a 7th Congressional District special election April 28. Bennett is voting in-person after she accidentally threw her mail-in ballot into a dumpster.(Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

More than twice as many Republicans as Democrats cast ballots last month at Howard County’s only in-person voting center to choose a successor to the late Rep. Elijah Cummings.

In an unusual election in which voters were provided surgical masks to guard against COVID-19, the scarcity of Democratic voters at the county fairgrounds polling site also was striking. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in Howard County and 4-1 overall in the 7th Congressional District, one of the most Democratic in the state.

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To public interest groups, the fairgrounds turnout represents a cautionary tale about ensuring — in Baltimore and across the nation — that officials offer enough in-person voting centers and locate them in areas that don’t provide one candidate or party an advantage over the other.

A Howard County voter is given a spritz of hand sanitizer as he enters the polling place at the Howard County Fairgrounds to vote in the 7th Congressional District special election during the COVID-19 pandemic. April 28, 2020.
A Howard County voter is given a spritz of hand sanitizer as he enters the polling place at the Howard County Fairgrounds to vote in the 7th Congressional District special election during the COVID-19 pandemic. April 28, 2020.(Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

“You couldn’t have put it in a more convenient place for Republican voters,” former Maryland Secretary of State John Willis said of the fairgrounds’ old bingo hall, where just 59 Democrats voted compared with 136 Republicans.

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Democrat Kweisi Mfume still handily won the special election, which was conducted mostly by mail. There were just three in-person voting centers — one each in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County, portions of which make up the 7th District.

But decisions concerning the number and placement of polling places could affect the outcomes of November’s general election contests for president and Congress in a country sharply divided along party lines, experts say.

“I would expect this would be an issue in the fall nationally," Willis said. “There will be candidates and parties complaining about the location of vote centers.”

The positioning of such sites could even influence turnout patterns in the June 2 Democratic mayoral primary in Baltimore.

Willis had expressed concern that — until this week — the city had planned four voting centers in a configuration that he said left a gap that could have depressed turnout in northern Baltimore.

On Wednesday, the State Board of Elections, meeting in emergency session, approved two more centers, bringing the total to six. The new centers will be in the northwest and northeast parts of the city, respectively, providing more geographic balance.

The action came after elections officials reported that an out-of-state vendor failed to mail hundreds of thousands of ballots to Baltimore voters for nearly a week despite assuring Maryland they were on the way. In returning their ballots, voters must assure they are postmarked or placed in an election drop box by June 2 to be counted in the election.

Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson had called on election officials to add more in-person voting centers to ensure that Baltimore voters are able to participate in the primary.

In Howard County, elections director Guy Mickley said he had just two weeks to find a voting site for the special general election April 28 to finish the rest of Cummings’ term after the state switched gears by deciding to permit limited in-person voting instead of conducting the election entirely by mail.

An Ellicott City library Mickley wanted to use was closed because of the coronavirus. He said he chose the fairgrounds because it had been used in the past for early voting and people were familiar with it.

“With COVID-19 around, your universe of choices becomes much smaller,” Mickley said. “I never had a single person complain about it all day.”

Democrats in Congress are pushing — so far unsuccessfully — to provide all states with the authority and money necessary to mail ballots to every voter during emergencies.

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Voting rights advocates say adequate in-person voting options are needed because — among other reasons — many people don’t yet trust or understand voting-by-mail, and because ballots can get lost. Nearly 1 in 10 ballots could not be delivered to Baltimore City voters during the special election in April, raising concerns for the June 2 primary.

The location and numbers of polling places have always been important for maximizing voter turnout, but such considerations are especially critical now. That’s because the rapidly expanding vote-by-mail trend — designed to keep voters away from possible COVID-19 exposure — means there will be fewer voting sites than normal in Maryland and nationally.

The fewer the polling places, the more important their placement so that voters of both parties have fair opportunities to get to the polls.

“You worry about not having enough, where are they located and are the locations favoring one community or one party over another,” said Danielle Root of the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group.

The center, while endorsing vote by mail for its convenience and safety, said it is not a viable option for every voter and is concerned that a number of states are holding elections with little or no in-person options.

People with disabilities sometimes need assistance or equipment unavailable at home, the center said. It said black voters are more likely than others to have changed their address, making them hard to reach by mail.

National Democrats have accused Republicans of using the pandemic to try to suppress the vote. “We’re working to make sure voters have voting options — whether it’s expanding early voting, making sure there are sufficient polling places per county, or making sure onerous requirements don’t stand in the way of voting by mail,” said Democratic National Committee spokesperson John Weber.

Michael Joyce, a Republican National Committee spokesperson, countered that Democrats “are using the COVID-19 crisis to willy-nilly rewrite election laws across the country through legal action.”

Last month, Democrats filed suit in Nevada challenging the state’s mostly vote-by-mail June primary on grounds that there wouldn’t be enough polling places for minorities and other groups that may rely more than others on in-person voting. The suit was dropped this month after Clark County agreed to add polling places in Las Vegas and make other changes.

Similar suits have been filed in other states. Republicans say Democrats are dangerously trying to weaken rules on voter registration and other safeguards protecting the integrity of the voting process.

Some Baltimore state lawmakers had worried their constituents would be challenged to get to the polls in June because the state initially capped the number of in-person voting sites at four each for the city and Maryland’s 24 counties.

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Marylanders will vote in the primary for nominees for president and the state’s eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Baltimore voters also will pick nominees for mayor, City Council president, city comptroller and City Council seats.

“In normal circumstances, people are accustomed to going to their neighborhood polling place," said state Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat whose district encompasses Park Heights to the north and Ridgely’s Delight to the south. "Most people in socioeconomically challenged communities are either walking or using mass transit.”

The four original Baltimore centers included Edmondson High School on the West Side, the University of Maryland at Baltimore Community Engagement Center in the center, and Mount Pleasant Church & Ministries on the city’s eastern edge. The fourth center, the Dr. Carter G. Woodson School, is in Cherry Hill in South Baltimore.

On Wednesday, the board added Northwood Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore and Northwestern High School in the northwest.

“That’s a significant improvement,” Willis said.

It is uncertain how Maryland’s November election will be structured. Linda Lamone, the state’s elections administrator, said she hopes to hold in-person voting, although elections officials are making plans to improve the state’s vote-by-mail system should Maryland need to adopt such an approach at that time.

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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