Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan authorized a plan on Monday night that will drastically reduce the number of in-person polling places in the state for the Nov. 3 presidential election after a weeks-long standoff with the state Board of Elections, which insisted on a plan involving far fewer voting locations due to coronavirus concerns.
Hogan, on the other hand, publicly worried that the plan for consolidated voting locations would actually increase the spread of the virus.
A proclamation issued by the governor late Monday will allow the board to set up “voting centers” that any eligible voter in that county may go to, instead of the traditional polling place model where voters are assigned a specific location where they may vote. This would include about 280 public schools serving as Election Day voting centers and about 80 early voting centers. These centers will be able to handle higher volumes of voters per election judge, meaning the state will be able to, in theory, handle the Election Day crowds despite a shortage of people volunteering to help run the state’s election amid the pandemic.
But Hogan authorized the plan reluctantly. In an accompanying letter, published by ABC 7, the governor registered his concern that “the Board’s decision to close nearly 80% of polls will have the potential to create long lines and unsafe conditions, with crowds of people being forced into too few polling places.”
That had been a problem during the June primary election in Maryland. So Hogan earlier this summer announced his intention to hold an election with every polling place open — in addition to the state sending absentee ballot applications to every voter and encouraging early voting — in order to curb lines. But the Board of Election resisted the plan for weeks before Hogan eventually issued his Monday proclamation.
Among the reasons the Board of Elections resisted Hogan’s plan was the shortage of election judges. The Washington Post reported that as of last week the state had just over 60 percent of the number of judges it needed to hold an election.
But Hogan essentially accused the board of slow-walking efforts to recruit enough election judges to execute the plan — WBALTV reported that in some instances people would call the board to volunteer to be election judges and were told to call back later. The Board of Elections has said that it “encourages all interested citizens to apply to serve as election judges as elections.maryland.gov.” Hogan further criticized the board for not sending out absentee ballot applications in a timely manner, which he directed the board to do.
“More than two months have passed,” Hogan said in an Aug. 3 letter to the Board of Elections, referring to the problem-filled June primary, “and you still have not provided a plan for how you are going to conduct an election. This is your sole responsibility and your only job. Instead, we have seen two months of delay and deflection about why polls can’t be opened, and why applications for ballots can’t be mailed. There are media reports indicating that those who attempt to volunteer to staff the polls are told that there is uncertainly about if there is any need and that they should call back at a later time.”
Another issue has been that many locations that typically serve as polling places are declining to do so amid the pandemic. Hogan also railed against the fact that in some minority communities, nearly all polling places could be closed if local officials get their way.
“We are very concerned about recent attempts to deny Marylanders the right to vote. Local leaders have suggested massive closures of polling places, particularly in some of our minority communities. This would likely result in voter suppression and disenfranchisement on a significant scale, disparately impacting Marylanders of color,” Hogan said in an Aug. 3 letter. “Last week, we received a letter from Prince George’s County — one of the nation’s most predominant African American counties with a total of 900,000 residents — saying that they want to close 229 precincts and only open 15. Imagine 244 polling places all trying to jam into 15 locations while trying to distance and keep people safe.”
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks accused Hogan, in dismissing that request, of a “high disregard” of the fact her county has been hit hard by the coronavirus, in a statement reported by the Washington Post. She said the idea to consolidate polling locations was out of concern for the illness and to promote “a safe and responsible voting process for our citizens.”
The consistent delays and confusion have led to calls for Maryland to join the eight states that are set to mail out actual ballots — not just applications — to every voter. It was one of the options the board presented in a report earlier this year and progressive groups like the ACLU of Maryland and Common Cause Maryland are calling on Hogan to mail ballots to every voter.
“It is still possible to prevent a potential public health disaster — not to mention voter suppression and a waste of millions of dollars — but Governor Hogan must act quickly,” Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Joanne Antoine said in a Baltimore Sun op-ed co-written with Sam Novey, the co-founder of Baltimore Votes. “Election officials say they would need to change course by mid-August to begin the process of mailing ballots to all voters. If he refuses to act, more people will unnecessarily get sick and die, and history will remember Governor Hogan for this betrayal of leadership.”
But sending mail-in ballots would require a change in state law, and the governor has taken a position that the Board of Elections will need to conduct the election consistent with state law, without changes.
“As you know, existing state law requires polling places to be open on Election Day,” Hogan said in the Aug. 3 letter. “It also requires eight days of early voting and opportunities for voters to request applications for absentee mail-in ballots. Under existing law, and to save voters the extra step of having to request an application for an absentee ballot, I directed you to promptly mail applications to every single Maryland registered voter. It has now been 26 days, and you have failed to take this action.”
The board has said it should be able to send out the absentee ballot applications by the end of August.