Md. Early Voting Measure Advances

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

A proposal that would allow voters to decide whether to change the Maryland Constitution to open polling stations before Election Day was approved in the House yesterday.

Senate leaders said a similar measure will probably clear the Senate on Monday.

If the bill, which Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) supports, is signed into law, voters would decide in a referendum next year whether to approve the constitutional amendment.

Last year, weeks before the September primary election, Maryland courts struck down a new early voting law, calling it unconstitutional.

When Democratic leaders returned for this year's 90-day session in January, they placed the early voting bill on the fast track, calling it a simple way to provide greater access to the polls by giving more flexibility to voters.

"This is a simple proposition," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who sponsored the House bill. "This just puts the question of letting Maryland go the polls early in front of the voters."

Under the House bill approved yesterday and its Senate companion measure, the referendum would be put to voters in 2008. The House doesn't specify how early voting could begin. The Senate would allow the legislature to set early voting up to two weeks before Election Day.

If approved, Maryland would join 37 other states that have some form of early voting. The new form of voting would be available for the 2010 elections.

Last year, the court ruled that the General Assembly overstepped its authority when it enacted legislation to allow voters to cast ballots outside their precincts and polling places to open a week before Election Day. The court said that the state Constitution strictly sets the timing of elections.

Under that law, polling places would have opened from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in three locations in Baltimore and three in each of the state's six largest counties. One location would be open in each of the remaining counties.

Republicans balked, arguing that the predominance of locations in Democrat strongholds gave their opponents an electoral advantage last year.

The debate continued this week.

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