ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan approved recommendations by the state elections board on Monday to reduce the number of polling places to accommodate a shortage of poll workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, the governor initially directed the state to hold a traditional election and open all polling locations on Election Day, as well as early voting centers — after the board did not reach a consensus on recommendations. That format would have opened about 80 early-voting centers and 1,800 precinct-based polling places.
Hogan also directed the board to promptly send out absentee-ballot request applications to every eligible Maryland voter for people who choose to vote by mail.
But local election officials 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. Volunteers who work polls often are older residents, who are more at risk for coronavirus complications.
So, on Friday, the five-member elections board urged the governor to use 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. The vote centers would be larger forums than precincts, which could make it easier to maintain social distancing rules, according to local election officials.
Hogan granted the authority needed to create the voting centers with some misgivings.
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“I remain 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, a Republican, wrote.
Hogan also noted that expeditiously mailing absentee ballot applications, encouraging voting by mail, and protecting early voting options will be critically important steps.
Maryland’s June 2 primary, which was the first to be conducted statewide mostly by mail due to the pandemic, was troubled by multiple problems. Ballots, which were sent directly to voters, did not arrive on schedule for many.
With only four in-person voting centers allowed during the primary in each of the state’s counties, voters faced long lines. Two extra voting centers were added to Baltimore, after election officials learned ballots had not been mailed by a vendor as scheduled. But lines were still long in a city where voters were deciding a close mayoral Democratic primary that had more than 20 candidates.
There was no in-person early voting in the June 2 primary.
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