Decision Time for Early Voting in Md.

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

While the debate over slot-machine gambling has consumed Maryland's election season, a separate ballot proposal on whether the state should allow early voting also has big implications and has drawn support from Democratic leadership and opposition from many Republican lawmakers.

Millions of voters in 33 states have already cast ballots for president, either in person or by mail, with no excuse needed, in a transformation of the way Americans vote. But a law allowing early voting in Maryland was struck down by the state's highest court in 2006.

The General Assembly then agreed to a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would authorize the legislature to pass a law allowing qualified voters to cast ballots up to two weeks before an election.

If voters approve Question 1, Maryland will be the first local jurisdiction to allow early voting.

And the measure will change some practices automatically before the next election. Voters will be permitted to cast ballots outside of their election districts, a practice the Court of Appeals struck down. Voters will be allowed to choose candidates by absentee ballot without citing illness or being out of town on Election Day. And if a voter casts a provisional ballot outside of the election district where he lives, the provisional ballot will count.

The early voting proposal has been overshadowed by the slots measure. But the outcome Nov. 4 will resolve a debate that divided the legislature along party lines when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) was governor.

The legislature, controlled by Democrats, pushed hard to enact early voting laws in 2005 and 2006, saying that the change would boost turnout and ease crowding on Election Day. But Ehrlich and other Republican lawmakers fought the effort, describing it as an invitation to voter fraud. Lawmakers overrode a veto by Ehrlich, who then launched a failed petition drive organized by his reelection campaign.

Before the court struck down the legislature's early voting bill, the Democrats had set up 21 "super-polling" sites, mostly in urban areas. Republicans said the sites were in Democratic-leaning regions. It is unclear whether the locations would change under a new law allowed by constitutional amendment.

Democrats are pushing the ballot measure as a needed change akin to a voting rights act that would give blue-collar workers and others who put in long hours better access to the vote.

"It's archaic to say there's only a 13-hour period in which you cast your ballot," said Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), a lead sponsor of several voting rights bills. "Also, younger people are less likely to stand in long lines on Election Day."

Republican lawmakers continue to oppose the change.

"Early voting without the appropriate safeguards threatens the legitimacy of our elections," House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert said in a statement. "Given that Maryland does not require photo identification for voting, this is ripe for fraud." Del. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington), minority whip, called early voting "duplicative and unnecessary" because Maryland already allows absentee voting.

But Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said predictions of fraud have not materialized as early voting has spread to a majority of states. "When you vote, the same standards apply under early voting as on Election Day," he said.

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