Ehrlich Petition Drive Challenges Early Voting

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will harness a large network of campaign workers to launch a major petition drive that aims to scotch plans for early voting in the fall.

The petition drive, if successful, would ask the state's voters to overturn a 2005 law that orders polling places to stay open 13 hours a day during the week leading up to Election Day. More crucial to Ehrlich (R), who is seeking reelection in November, it would automatically postpone early voting entirely this year.

Petitioning legislation onto the ballot has occurred rarely in Maryland. For Ehrlich to prevail, his campaign team would have to collect 51,185 valid signatures by June 30 and overcome a recent legal opinion by the state attorney general's office, which asserted that the petition drive needed to occur last year to get on the ballot this fall.

The decision to challenge the election law, outlined by Ehrlich's campaign manager during a meeting with members of a Montgomery County Republican club yesterday, signals the governor's concern about early voting's potential to drive up turnout for Democrats.

In the Nov. 7 general election, Ehrlich, the state's first Republican governor in a generation, is expected to face one of two well-known Democratic challengers, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley or Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Democrats have pushed hard for Maryland to join 35 states that allow some form of early voting. The party's nearly 2 to 1 edge on voter rolls means that any move to drum up turnout would increase its advantage. And that is especially true now; Democrats muscled through legislation this month that will place 21 early polling sites in dense urban areas, near large clusters of party supporters.

One of the staunchest advocates of early voting, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), said yesterday that there's no question that it will help Democrats by getting working-class voters to the polls.

"Executives and shareholders in utilities can already take time off on Election Day," Miller said. "Sheet metal workers and crane operators and people who have to leave the house at 5 in the morning to get to their jobs at the Pentagon, they're the ones who are helped by this."

Ehrlich campaign manager Bo Harmon did not focus on concerns about partisan advantage when he urged 19 members of the Rock Creek Republican Women's Club yesterday to help gather signatures. The primary reason for the petition drive, he said, is to halt a practice that "opens the door to voter fraud."

Holding polls open for days will tempt partisans to vote multiple times, he predicted.

"It's up to us to stop it," Harmon said. "This is a big, big deal."

For three years, control of the state's election apparatus has been a source of friction between Ehrlich and the Democrats who dominate both chambers of the legislature. Harmon said the campaign not only plans to launch its petition drive, but also will bring a court challenge against a law passed this month that expands the powers of Linda Lamone, the state elections administrator. Lamone is a Democratic appointee.

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