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Md. moves to consolidate polling places in November

While expressing concerns, Hogan grants elections board request

Lines of voters wrapping around the Enoch Pratt Free Library main branch in Baltimore City on election day 2016. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Lines of voters wrapping around the Enoch Pratt Free Library main branch in Baltimore City on Election Day 2016. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The State Board of Elections can move forward with a proposal to create large voting centers after Gov. Larry Hogan issued a proclamation Monday afternoon.

Hogan, in signing off on the proposal, still expressed reservations.

“I remain very concerned that the board’s decision to close nearly 80% of the polls will have the potential of creating long lines and unsafe conditions, with crowds of people being forced into too few polling places,” Hogan said in a letter to the board that was released Monday afternoon.

In July, Hogan ordered the board to open all early voting centers and traditional polling places and mail 4 million registered voters applications for absentee ballots rather than ordering a mostly vote-by-mail election, as was done for the June primary.

The governor cited a number of problems with returned ballots or those that had errors, which delayed counting, as a reason for not repeating the mostly by-mail election.

“My only direction to you, under existing law, was to expand and encourage voting by mail by immediately mailing absentee ballot requests to every voter,” Hogan wrote Monday. “The board’s recent decisions make this more important than ever.”

Under a plan approved by Hogan in July, the board was to ensure that every early voting center and polling place was open for the Nov. 3 election and to mail applications for absentee ballots — rather than mail the ballots themselves — to every registered voter in the state.

“Expeditiously mailing the ballot applications, encouraging voting by mail, and protecting early voting options will be critically important steps needed to lessen the problems caused by your decision to close the vast majority of polls,” Hogan wrote Monday.

That plan was one of three recommendations on the November election that was part of a report from the board to Hogan. That report also attempted to explain the failures of the primary election, including thousands of absentee ballots that could not be delivered to residents because of out-of-date addresses and long lines at polling places in Baltimore and elsewhere.

One week ago, the governor demanded that board officials explain why they have yet to mail absentee ballot applications to more than 4 million registered voters in the state, as he had ordered.

The board of elections is scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to give final approval to the plan it devised Friday and asked Hogan to approve on Monday.

Hogan’s action and the board’s plan do not go far enough, said Del. Julian Ivey, D-Prince George’s.

“I think (the state) should be mailing ballots to every voter as well as in addition to making some of the changes as well that the board proposed to him,” said Ivey. “Overall, it’s a move in the right direction but still inefficient.”

Ivey cited concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 in November and said the current process of absentee ballot requests is likely to remain confusing. Prince George’s County has been hit the hardest by the virus since the first cases were detected and announced in March.

“That’s going to put people’s lives at risk by making them show up in person,” said Ivey, who attributed Hogan’s rumored future political ambitions for his decision to not request automatic mailings of absentee ballots, as was done in the primary.

The state already has a severe shortage of judges to work the polls, and boards of elections are bracing for more. Most who work as elections judges are senior citizens and fall into age groups that are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Under the proposal discussed by the board Friday afternoon, jurisdictions that could not fully staff their typical number of polling places would be required to have a minimum number of voting centers. That minimum requirement would be equal to the number of early voting centers plus the high schools within a respective jurisdiction.

There are 282 high schools statewide. Those high schools would act as voting centers, where any resident could vote regardless of the precinct where they reside.

The board would also use 127 ballot drop boxes.

“I am pleased that the Governor accepted the Board of Elections recommendations today,” said House Speaker Adrienne Jones. “While I share concerns about maximizing access to the polls, either through vote by mail or in-person voting, we need to do the work necessary between now and Election Day to educate Maryland voters about all of the options available to them to cast their ballot safely and vote in this election.”

Had Hogan failed to approve its most recent proposal, board members said they’d be likely to resort to approving individual county requests to consolidate polling precincts.

The governor, in his letter a week ago, expressed concerns about consolidating polling places, saying it could lead to voter suppression.



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