The Maryland State Board of Elections is weighing a proposal to replace the small polling places that serve one or two voter precincts with a much smaller number of large vote centers. Local election officials are pushing the idea in response to a massive shortage of election judges and locations that can house polling sites.
Local election officials say as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are short nearly 15,000 election judges statewide, after 1,300 judges quit in the last two weeks.
“They agree to do it and then they think about it or they talk to their families, and their families say, ‘You’re taking your life in your hands to be an election judge,’” said David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, or MAEO. “Many people are deciding that’s not a trade-off that they’re willing to make.”
Garreis, whose organization represents local boards of elections across the state, spoke with the State Board of Elections at its virtual meeting on Wednesday.
He said local election officials expect the problem to get worse as the number of COVID-19 cases climbs in September and October.
“Once the majority of the election judges quit, there’s not going to be a backup,” Garreis said.
In addition, many of the organizations that usually host polling places in their buildings have said they won’t this year.
The state board was scheduled to consider on Wednesday several county election boards’ proposals to consolidate polling places. Other jurisdictions are expected to submit their own consolidation plans later.
However, the board delayed that discussion while it considered a proposal by Garreis’ group to replace traditional polling places with “vote centers” open to all voters in a jurisdiction.
Garreis said a vote center is “the super center of polling places.” The county election boards would use the largest facilities available to them to accommodate more voters.
“We would be able to run the election more efficiently while maintaining social distancing and public health priorities,” he said.
MAEO proposes that each jurisdiction have at least two more vote centers than there are typically early voting locations. For example, in Baltimore City, which typically has seven early voting locations, there would be at least nine vote centers throughout the city, compared with nearly 300 precinct-specific polling places.
In total, MAEO’s proposal adds up to 128 vote centers statewide. MAEO suggests opening them for voting from Oct. 29 through Election Day, Nov. 3.
The five members of the State Board of Elections seemed receptive to the idea.
Board Chairman Michael Cogan suggested giving counties the flexibility to add more vote centers if they think they can handle them, which Garreis said would be fine.
Board Vice Chairman Patrick “PJ” Hogan asked whether the local election boards would be able to scale up and staff 282 vote centers — one at every public high school in the state. Garreis said yes to that, too.
But board member Bill Voelp pointed out a flaw in the proposal.
“We don’t have the authority, under anything that I have seen, to do vote centers,” Voelp said.
The State Board already made a recommendation to Gov. Larry Hogan last month about how to proceed with the election, and the governor decided that every precinct’s polling place should be open.
In a letter this week to State Elections Administrator Linda Lamone, Hogan said local boards of elections can consolidate some precincts, but he compared “massive closures of polling places” to voter suppression.
Still, the State Board of Elections can make the recommendation. The Board did not come to a decision on MAEO’s vote center proposal at Wednesday’s meeting. It plans to meet again on Friday.