Ehrlich appoints panel to examine elections issues

Use of absentee ballots, early opening of polls to be studied

governor vetoed similar changes in May


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. created a blue-ribbon panel yesterday to examine whether Maryland should open some polls a week before election day, allow more people to use absentee ballots and make other changes to encourage more voting.

Ehrlich asked a nine-member bipartisan commission, headed by former U.S. Attorney George Beall, to submit its recommendations for possible changes in election law by January, in time for the governor to submit legislation to the General Assembly.

The panel includes lawyers, a county elections administrator, and Frances Hughes Glendening, a Federal Elections Commission lawyer and the ex-wife of Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening.

Some Democrats are nonetheless questioning Ehrlich's commitment to election changes, noting that he vetoed several bills that would have addressed the same topics. Ehrlich promised to appoint a commission in the veto messages he issued in May.

"Regardless of the talent and the merit of the people on the panel, we've got two months until the session," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. "If the governor was serious, this commission would have been appointed four months ago."

Beall, a Republican, said that because the panel would examine only "four or five specific recommendations," it could complete its work quickly.

Beall was head of a similar 1995 review of state election laws. Two other members of the commission named yesterday - attorney and former judge George L. Russell Jr., a Democrat, and Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a Republican - were also on the 1995 board.

"Perfection in the voting mechanism is not possible, but certainly we can enhance the procedures for voting to increase voter turnout," Beall said.

Proponents say opening selected polling stations a week before election day would provide more flexibility for people who work long hours or are traveling.

Many lawmakers also want to allow voters to get an absentee ballot for any reason, removing a requirement that allows such ballots only for military service and other specified reasons. Both issues were the subject of bills vetoed by Ehrlich and will now be studied by the commission.

Another topic to be studied by the panel is the creation of a paper receipt system to accompany Maryland's touch-screen electronic voting machines, as critics of the machines have sought. The governor this year vetoed a bill to study paper receipt systems, saying the General Assembly bill did not give the executive branch enough authority in the decision.

Ehrlich, a Republican, has been skeptical of changes to state election law proposed by the Democrat-controlled Assembly. Some Democrats say Ehrlich believes election law changes will help Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in Maryland by nearly 2 to 1.

"That's a reasonable inference," Rosenberg said, adding that the Assembly would consider overriding the vetoes of the election bills, regardless of the work of the panel.

The commission includes two former Democratic officeholders, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg and state Sen. James C. Simpson.

Also on the panel are Prince George's County elections administrator Robin Downs Colbert; Washington College executive vice president Joseph Holt; and attorney Christopher R. West.

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

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