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Judge Voids Md. Laws for Early Voting

Democrats planned to capitalize with elaborate efforts to prod voters to the polls. They view turnout, especially among African American voters, as crucial to their bid to unseat Ehrlich in the Nov. 7 election. The decision could force them to revise those plans.

Miller said he was baffled by the court ruling, because 35 states, including 10 whose constitutions define Election Day as Maryland's does, have permitted some form of early voting. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld similar provisions.

But Silkworth wrote that what has occurred in other states or in federal court is not relevant to the Maryland case. He wrote that he felt compelled to adhere to a basic guiding principle: "not to depart from the plain language" of the constitution.

Dan Friedman, an expert on the Maryland constitution who teaches at the University of Maryland Law School, said there is considerable room for disagreement on the subject on appeal.

"I think there is some flexibility in the constitution," Friedman said, noting, for instance, that although the constitution decrees that the election will be held on a specific day in November, the polls need not open at 12:01 a.m. and remain open until midnight.

"The Court of Appeals has said the constitution isn't meant to be a straitjacket," he said.

Republican lawmakers said they had warned Democrats that in their view, passing early voting laws would require amending the constitution, much as the legislature did when it allowed for absentee voting.

"We told them, 'If you want to do this, do it right,' " said House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (Calvert).

Earlier this year, just before the vote on one of the provisions, Republicans became so incensed that they staged a rare walkout in the Senate, marching up the marble staircase in the State House and into the governor's reception room. Ehrlich applauded them for walking out and declared that four years of "monopoly frustration has come to a head."

Yesterday, Ehrlich gave a similar assessment, saying he might have supported the concept of extending voting hours, or even opening polls for "two or three days."

But he said he was appalled by the Democrats' bill, which spelled out 21 addresses where polls must be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the week leading up to Election Day and also enhanced the power of the state elections administrator, a Democratic appointee, to oversee actions of local election officials appointed by Republicans.

The court ruling -- as did the one striking down a law requiring Wal-Mart to provide health benefits to its workers -- helps him convey his message that the legislature has "overreached," he said.

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