Judge Voids Md. Laws for Early Voting

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006

An Anne Arundel County judge invalidated Maryland's early voting laws yesterday in an opinion that could substantially alter the political tactics used by campaign teams across the state this fall.

Circuit Court Judge Ronald Silkworth ruled that it would be illegal for Maryland elections officials to open polling stations during the week before Election Day because the state constitution strictly sets the timing of elections. The 2005 and 2006 laws also improperly permitted voters to cast ballots outside their precincts, he wrote.

"This court finds that the General Assembly exceeded its constitutional authority in enacting the early voting statutes," wrote Silkworth, a Democratic appointee whose ruling favors Republicans in one of the State House's most partisan disputes.

Silkworth agreed to stay the decision until the case could be heard on appeal by the state's highest court, probably before the Sept. 12 primary. State election officials said they will continue to prepare for voting to start as early as Sept. 5.

Should it hold up on appeal, the decision would most directly benefit Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). He has vigorously fought the early voting proposals from their inception, first in the legislature with his veto and then with a failed petition drive orchestrated by his reelection campaign.

The governor has described the plan as an invitation to voter fraud; Democrats have likened his efforts to stop it as tantamount to voter suppression.

Ehrlich learned of the decision during a lunch with Washington Post reporters and editors and appeared genuinely pleased and surprised. "Wow!" he exclaimed, eyes wide. "Are you serious? Wow!"

"They were real bad bills," he continued. "They were just ridiculous. Absolutely stupid. Stupid partisanship."

A key reason Ehrlich has fought so hard to derail the early voting provisions -- and Democrats have pushed so hard to enact them -- is that they are believed to give an edge to Democratic Party candidates in Maryland.

It's a matter of numbers: Early voting increases turnout. Democrats have a nearly 2 to 1 edge on voter rolls, so that means more votes for Democrats.

Democrats, however, have described the bill as something more akin to a voter rights act, because expanding the polling period provides more opportunities for working-class voters who might not have time to vote on Election Day.

"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," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said earlier this year.

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