Tuesday, October 6, 2015

GOP War on Voting Comes to MoCo // MD Board of Elections to Vote OCT 15 on Ending Early Voting Sites: Here's the Process

By Matt Verghese

Here we go again.... Four months after Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill to restore voting rights to 40,000 people returning to society from prison, the Maryland GOP is back at it. The Washington Post reported on controversy swirling around a recent decision by the Republican-led Montgomery County Board of Elections (MCBOE) to replace two of nine high-performing early voting sites with less populated polling locations closer to Republicans (excerpt below, emphasis mine):
WASHINGTON POST: The Republican majority on the Montgomery County Board of Elections, led by an appointee of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), voted Monday to shift two heavily used early-voting sites to less populous locations, prompting Democratic charges­ of voter suppression. 
The board voted 3 to 2 to move early voting from the Marilyn Praisner Community Center in Burtonsville, which serves high-poverty East County communities along U.S. 29, to the Longwood Community Recreation Center in Brookeville, 13 miles to the northwest. The panel also shifted early balloting from the Jane Lawton Community Recreation Center in Chevy Chase, about a half-mile from the Bethesda Metro station, to the Potomac Community Recreation Center, on Falls Road, 10 miles to the northwest....

THE PROCESS: WHAT HAPPENED & WHAT COMES NEXT: Notably, the party of the Governor (now a Republican) gets to appoint members to county boards of election. Montgomery County's board is now made up of three Republicans and two Democrats:
  • Jim Shalleck, President - Republican
  • Nahid Khozeimeh, Vice President - Republican
  • Mary Ann Keeffe, Secretary - Democrat
  • Alexander Vincent, Board Member - Republican
  • David Naimon, Board Member - Democrat

Notably, Jim Shalleck was the 2014 Republican candidate for Montgomery County Executive and formerly chaired the MoCo Republican Party. After listening to public testimony on Montgomery County's early vote locations, the MCBOE took a partly line vote (3-2) to close two early voting centers and replace them with locations closer to Republicans. The Montgomery County Republicans' proposal now heads to the five-member State Board of Elections (SBOE) for a final vote on October 15th. Notably the SBOE also now has a Republican majority, but one more person has to weigh in before this vote occurs: Linda Lamone, the State Administrator of the Board of Elections. Code of Maryland Regulation states (excerpt below):
MARYLAND CODE: Upon receipt of a form for a proposed early voting center, the State Administrator shall review and make a recommendation to the State Board as to whether to accept or reject the proposed early voting center....
Lamone could base a recommendation against the GOP's early voting proposal based on criteria listed in state regulations, including provisions that polling locations be "served by public transportation and roads" and have "parking facilities sufficient for early voting." Notably Lamone has served as Maryland's State Administrator since Governor Paris Glendening and previously foiled an attempt by Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich to remove her from her position.

The provision that sites be "served by public transportation" could be problematic for the Republicans' proposal to close the Burtonsville site and replace it with one at the Longwood Community Recreation Center in Brookeville. Only one bus route serves the Brookeville site (Ride On Route 53, with a stop .3 miles from the polls), and the bus only runs in the morning and evening on weekdays. Meanwhile, early voting is open all day.

If Lamone were to recommend against the early voting changes, it would take a super-majority of the SBOE to approve the Montgomery County Republicans' proposal. And if all else fails in stopping the Republican voter suppression effort, there is one final backstop: A few state legislators representing Montgomery County are contemplating legislation to increase the county's number of early voting sites from nine to eleven, using the two additional sites to restore polling locations in Chevy Chase and Burtonsville. The Washington Post's Bill Turque reported on this backstop legislation (excerpt below):
WASHINGTON POST: State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery) said Wednesday that when the general Assembly reconvenes in January, he and Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) will introduce a measure to expand the number of early voting sites in the county from nine to 11. The bill would restore the Marilyn Praisner Community Recreation Center in Burtonsville and the Jane Lawton Community Recreation Center in Chevy Chase to the list while retaining the two new sites selected by the board, Longwood Community Recreation Center in Brookeville and Potomac Community Recreation Center in Potomac....

[GOP MCBOE Chair] Shalleck said his only goal was to improve the “geographic diversity” of the sites, creating access to early voting for communities that have had none. But County Council staff have raised questions about whether the Longwood site meets all the Maryland criteria for early voting centers, specifically access to public transportation. [County Counicilmember Nancy] Navarro said the measure sponsored by Madaleno and Leudtke was “ a great idea. I’m really hoping this could be a fix,” she said....


VIDEO OF GOP BOARD OF ELECTIONS MEMBERS DISCUSSING THE CHANGES: In response to the controversy, Montgomery County Councilmembers held a public hearing to question the county Board of Elections (MCBOE) about the motivation for these changes. In the video clip below (posted by Councilmember Tom Hucker) you can see the recently appointed Republican Chair of the MCBOE Jim Shalleck admit that:
  1. Replacing the Burtonsville and Chevy Chase early voting sites with ones closer to Republicans would mean fewer voters live close to an early vote polling location
  2. Not a single person who testified at a public hearing about polling locations called for closing the Burtonsville or Chevy Chase polling locations
  3. Not a single person testified in favor of the proposed new sites in the less densely populated neighborhoods
  4. Republican members of the MCBOE held private calls with Republican Party leaders about changing the early voting sites

Let’s break the Republicans' decision down:

IMPACT OF THE GOP'S PROPOSED EARLY VOTING CHANGES: The move by the GOP Board to "expand the geographic reach of early voting" may seem innocuous, but is hard to see as anything but a partisan move -- instead of one based on fair and efficient election administration. Congressman Van Hollen points out that Chevy Chase's Lawton Community Center is the only western down-county early voting site within walking distance of a Metro station. The Republicans are proposing to close this polling location and open a new one in a far-less populated area in Potomac that is not Metro-accessible.

But what is most suspect about the GOP’s proposal is how it moves early voting away from the high concentration of minority voters in East County. You can visualize what the impact of this change by using the Racial Dot Map from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. The black star on the map below is the current Burtonsville early voting center. The shading around the star represents the concentration of minority voters:

Borders reflect approximately 5 mile radius from Praisner Center

The same voter suppression in Burtonsville holds true for lower-income voters. The following map was created using the Synthetic Population Viewer developed by RTI International. Again, the star represents the Burtonsville early voting site, and the shading near the site represents lower income voters:

Unsurprisingly, these voters tend to vote Democratic. By comparison, the precincts around the Republicans proposed new site in Brookeville are among the handful of areas that Governor Hogan won in Montgomery County in 2014. The black star below represents the GOP's proposed new site in Brookeville, and the shading around the star represents the concentration of the Republican vote:

Thousands of low-income minority and Democratic-leaning voters will now be over 10 miles away from the nearest early voting center. But election data in Maryland show that the closer you are to an early voting site, the more likely you are to use it.

WHY THIS MATTERS IN 2016: Early voting use has surged (especially among young voters, African Americans and Hispanic voters)  but its impact on turnout is mixed. Should we care then about these changes to early voting, especially when our friends across the aisle portend we don’t even need early voting since we can vote by absentee for any reason at all?

One big reason is a new Maryland law taking effect that allows same day voter registration. Starting in 2016, Maryland residents can register to vote and cast a ballot at any early voting center for 8 days. According to Demos, same-day registration would increase overall turnout especially among young adults, voters of color and low-income families. Research even suggests  that voter turnout is maximized when same day registration is coupled with early voting. Moving early voter centers away from the voters most likely to benefit from same day registration? This is surely not the intention of the GOP....

BUT IT COULD’VE BEEN WORSE (HA): Facing perhaps unexpected pressure from the press and elected officials to fully explain their rationale for the early voting changes  -- Republican MCBOE Chair Jim Shalleck warned Kate Ryan of WTOP that it could’ve been much worse (transcript below, emphasis mine):
JIM SHALLECK: If we wanted to be political we could’ve cut Silver Spring and Wheaton - the two most heavily Democratic voting sites. But we didn’t.
The Republican Chairman's defense boils down to the fact that they could've suppressed even more voters than they did.  Beyond that Mr. Shalleck’s friends in the Montgomery County GOP put out a near incoherent statement of support spreading falsehoods - asserting that the Praisner site is “heavily used by residents of PG County” (unlikely per Maryland Election Law §3–305) or that Republicans are “making the early voting process more convenient” (tell that to the Burtonsville voters who has to take a 2 hour one-way bus ride to register to vote or cast a ballot).

EARLY VOTING WORKS WELL FOR MINORITIES AND LOW-INCOME VOTERS: The Washington Post’s Emily Badger makes a persuasive economic case about why early voting is important to minorities and low-income voters (excerpt below, emphasis mine)
WASHINGTON POST: Early voting is intimately bound up in race, not simply because minorities are more likely to take advantage of it, but because the policy itself addresses systemic barriers they face. When we decide to vote, we're not simply making a calculation about whether we like the candidates, or care about the issues at stake, or value the abstract idea of democracy. We also have to make calculations about how to get to the polls, whether we can spare the time to go there, and who will watch the kids while we're gone. 
These costs associated with voting — in lost pay, in childcare, in transit fares — are higher for minorities and the poor. Which is why they are among the largest beneficiaries of early, flexible voting.

Act now to stop the Maryland Republicans' voter suppression efforts:

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