Maryland’s state elections board voted Friday to significantly reduce the number of places where voters can cast ballots on Election Day in November, a proposal aimed at accommodating a shortage of poll workers while avoiding voter confusion and crowded precincts during the coronavirus pandemic.
The five-member board’s recommendation to Gov. Larry Hogan calls for using 282 public high schools or better sites as “vote centers” where any registered voter in a particular county could cast a ballot on Nov. 3. Board members also expressed support for keeping the state's roughly 80 early-voting centers open on Nov. 3.
The state's current election format calls for having roughly 80 early-voting centers and opening up to 1,800 precinct-based polling places, with voters required to cast ballots at their local precincts. Vote centers would be larger forums than precincts, which could make it easier to maintain social distancing rules, according to local election officials.
Board members said they don't have the authority to create vote centers and acknowledged that Hogan may reject their unanimous recommendation. The Republican governor has issued a directive to hold a traditional in-person election and has said local election officials must open all polling locations and early-voting centers for the general election.
Local election officials, however, have asked to consolidate polling places due to shortages in volunteer election judges. Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore city collectively have more than 14,000 vacancies for poll workers with less than three months remaining before Election Day.
Board vice chairman Patrick Hogan said their vote center recommendation is “doable" and ”tells the locals exactly the numbers needed."
“And then they can get on the stick and start recruiting more judges and training the judges,” added Hogan, a Democrat who isn't related to the governor.
Board member Malcolm Funn said the vote centers on Election Day are a “novel idea” for Maryland.
“It should work,” he said.
In a letter Thursday to state elections administrator Linda Lamone, the governor said he strongly advises against “wholesale closures of polling places that could disenfranchise Marylanders.”
“Proposals to close roughly 90% of polling places — particularly in minority communities — would result in voter suppression and risk violating the Voting Rights Act,” the governor wrote. “You would also be increasing the potential for crowds of voters at the few open polling places, resulting in hours-long lines.”
David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, expressed confidence during Wednesday’s board meeting that local officials could adequately staff vote centers at 282 high schools.
“That would help the local boards quite a bit,” he said.
Maryland’s June 2 primary election was plagued by problems with mail-in ballots and long lines at polling stations. Hogan said in a letter Monday that the state elections board appears to be on a path to repeating the “massive failures” of the primary. He also questioned why the board hadn't yet sent applications for a mail-in ballot to more than 4 million voters.
“Further attempts to suppress the vote by massive closure of polls must be stopped or there will be serious consequences,” he wrote.
Patrick Hogan, the board vice chairman, made a last-ditch appeal Wednesday for the board to recommend mailing ballots directly to every registered voter. The board, which has been divided on that option, didn't vote on that idea this week.