MARYLAND VOTERS will probably get to decide whether the state constitution should be amended to allow early voting. Let's hope they show more discernment and judgment than the Democratic-controlled legislature that is muscling an ill-defined measure onto the ballot.
Both houses of the General Assembly have approved a constitutional amendment to permit early voting, making it almost certain there will be a referendum in 2008. The action follows a rancorous two-year fight in which Democrats rammed through measures that gave them a clear advantage over Republicans. For instance, the only places where people would have been able to vote ahead of time just happened to be in heavily Democratic precincts. Republicans were right to think the effort was more about helping Democrats than helping voters. The Democratic effort was thwarted when the Court of Appeals rejected the law, saying the constitution does not authorize voting on any day other than Election Day.
So the Democrats are back with a bid to amend the constitution, arguing that early voting is a civic good because, by making it easier to vote, it boosts turnout. Too bad that's not really true. The experience of other states has shown that early voting does not increase turnout in any significant way. It's important that any decision about whether to allow early voting be framed by the facts -- not politics. There are arguments pro and con. Voters like having the choice and convenience of early voting, and ballot counting is more accurate under the system. On the other hand, there are increased costs associated with maintaining extended polling places and more opportunities for fraud. Plus, Maryland already allows no-excuse absentee voting, so early voting may be duplicative.
Still, we would be inclined to favor anything that makes it easier for people to vote. The Democrats are right that a constitutional amendment should not be encumbered by operational details such as where polling places would be located; changing the constitution is the first step. But the lack of a mechanism to ensure fair implementation of early voting is worrisome -- particularly given the Democrats' record of playing politics with the issue.
The House and Senate still must work out the differences between their respective bills. It's only fair that they also set up a system whereby voter approval of the amendment would trigger establishment of a bipartisan commission charged with working out the details of early voting. If they refuse to do that, voters should realize they are being asked to hand out a blank check.