GAITHERSBURG – The Gaithersburg Mayor and Council held the floor open to the public for comments on current issues facing the area.
Mayor Jud Ashman explained that the designated time allowed residents and members of the community to speak on issues that are important to them but might not be in connection with any current policy or initiative.
Jim Shalleck and David Naimon from the Montgomery County Board of Elections addressed the mayor and council during the public comments portion of the meeting to discuss voting spaces.
Shalleck, who serves as president of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, explained that the upcoming election year is expected to have high participation given the charged nature of this voting cycle.
“As we all know this election in 2020 is going to have a huge turnout,” Shalleck said. “We have 720,000 voters in Montgomery County and over 250 voting precincts, 11, maybe 12, early voting sites and over 3,000 judges and workers on election day.”
He explained that early voting and voting by absentee ballot has become increasingly popular in recent years.
“Now almost 30% of all votes are early or absentee, more and more people are voting early and (Gaithersburg) is a very popular spot,” he said. “We’re here to ask the (Mayor and Council) to use one of the gyms at the Bohrer Park for the entire primary early voting especially on the Democratic side it’s going to be a huge turnout for president, and we expect tremendous turnout.”
He explained that space currently allotted for early voting in the Activity Center at Bohrer Park will be the smallest space in Montgomery County for residents to cast their votes. The Montgomery County Board of Elections is looking to avoid long lines by finding more voting space, he said.
“Some of the lines have (ended up) crisscrossing the center, people are in one line and it crashes into another line, so we’ve had some logistical issues there,” Shalleck said.
According to city officials, the Activity Center’s two gymnasiums are both 7,750 square feet. Space is often rented out for indoor activities and can accommodate a large number of people when needed.
Shalleck joked that the Montgomery County Board of Elections sees their search for more voting space as a bipartisan effort. He explained that he is a registered Republican and the Board’s secretary, Naimon, who also spoke during public comments, is a registered Democrat.
Naimon explained that Gaithersburg has made space available for early voting in the Activity Center at Bohrer Park since 2014 and that the Board of Elections is very appreciative of the space.
“(The popularity of the site) has actually increased dramatically; from the 2014 general election to the 2018 general election it was almost three times as many voters at the Boher Center,” Naimon said. “There were 4,455 voters in the general election in 2014 and 13,230 who voted there in the 2018 general election. 2018 was unusual for several reasons compared with every other election before it in terms of turnout and some of the turnout in the county was more similar to presidential years.”
Generally, in midterm election cycles like local and state elections, voter turnout is significantly lower than when there is a presidential race, according to Pew Research Center. It also notes that voter turnout has dropped consistently during midterm elections since the 1840s.
“We expect 2020 to be even bigger. Gaithersburg had the third-highest of any of the other early voting sites in Montgomery County, exceeded only by Silver Spring and Potomac,” Naimon said. “We’ve been trying, over the last couple of election cycles to move from social halls to gyms in all of our locations.”
He explained that Gaithersburg has offered gym space for the presidential election and the last two days of the primary election, but the Montgomery County Board of Elections have concerns about the turnout numbers for the 2020 election which could lead to a disorganized voting process.
Renting the extra space would require more funding and Naimon offered the Board’s help in lobbying the Montgomery County Council for more funding to make the space available.
City Manager Tony Tomasello explained that although the city is happy to work with the Montgomery County Board of Elections, renting out more the gym space is a big ask given that they are so heavily utilized.
“These are our only gyms, these are long activities the early voting is 10 to 12 days at a time, we felt like giving up one gym for the general elections was about as far as we could go,” Tomasello said. “We have hundreds of users that would be disrupted.”
He explained that Montgomery Parks staff, who run the activity center, have been resolute that giving up both gyms for more than a week would be very difficult.
“It’s just a really difficult ask for us, given the disruption to classes, given that these are our only facilities for these types of activities,” Tomasello said.
Councilmember Michael Sesma explained that having long lines on the voting day often feels festive to him.
“In terms of the democratic experience and why everybody was there, I think everybody appreciated the fact of what that they were there for and that it was important to them to wait and have the opportunity to vote,” he said. “So, while I understand everybody likes to get through quickly, I think people have learned now over a couple of elections to time the things better if you’re going to early vote.”
Sesma recalled that there were not a lot of complaints from voters about having to wait.
The mayor and council decided to consider the proposal and make final decisions before the Montgomery County Board of Elections needs to finalize its voting sites in September.