Capital Notebook

Capital Notebook

March 31, 2006

Voting-by-mail plan meets criticism

A new plan for Maryland voters to cast ballots by mail this fall received a cool reception from advocates who have been pushing for the state to ditch its current electronic voting machines.

With the proposed system, modeled after Oregon's, paper ballots would be mailed to voters who would fill them out and send them in. The system is identical to absentee voting in Maryland, where paper ballots are mailed and tabulated through optical-scan machines.

"Mail-in voting has a significant downside," said Linda Schade, with TrueVoteMD, an advocacy group opposed to the state's electronic touch-screen machines manufactured by Diebold Elections Systems. Widespread use of absentee ballots or their equivalent invites fraud, she said.

The House of Delegates voted unanimously several weeks ago to abandon the state's touch-screen voting equipment and switch to a one-year lease of optical-scan machines. The measure is stalled in the Senate.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and the chairwoman of a committee that oversees election issues, said the mail-in option is among many under consideration.

Hollinger said she worries the state may not be able to overhaul its voting system in time for the fall elections and is troubled by news reports that other states have had trouble with the vendor of the optical-scan equipment.

The mail-ballot plan is the latest battle over adopting a paper trail for the state's voting system. Many lawmakers and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have said the state's Diebold machines need paper receipts to ensure accurate and safe elections.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties and a member of the Senate committee reviewing the bill, said he dislikes the notion of a mail-in system. He said he thinks the option could be an effort to kill the legislation.

"The cynic in me thinks this is an attempt to blow up all reform efforts, to create enough confusion to prevent anything from happening," he said. "Everybody gets to claim they championed a paper trail, but we get stuck with the same system."

Hollinger disputed that claim and said this week that she is committed to passing a paper trail bill.

Kelly Brewington

Confirmation bill advances

Despite a silent protest by Republicans, a House of Delegates committee passed a bill yesterday that would force Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to submit his Cabinet secretaries for confirmation hearings again if he's re-elected.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, appears targeted at one person: Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. The measure has already passed the Senate and could be approved by the House as early as today.

Miller has called his vote to confirm Flanagan one of the worst mistakes of his four decades in public office. Flanagan, a former Republican delegate from Howard County, has been a lightning rod for controversy over the last three years, amid complaints about the distribution of local highway funds, a restructuring of Baltimore bus routes and other controversies.

Cabinet secretaries and many other executive branch officials must be confirmed by the Senate before taking office. State law is silent on whether those officials need to be re-confirmed if a chief executive wins a second term.

When Miller walked into the House Health and Government Operations Committee hearing room yesterday to testify on behalf of the bill, all of the Republicans on the committee walked out, said Del. William J. Frank, a Towson Republican.

"It's the most egregious, outrageous piece of legislation I've seen in my four years in Annapolis," Frank said, noting that, on the bright side, Democrats appear to be acknowledging that Ehrlich will be re-elected.

"If not, why would they be working overtime on the governor's ability to name his own Cabinet?" Frank said.

The bill was passed by the committee on a party-line vote, 14-8.

Andrew A. Green

Panel OKs emissions bill

A bill that would impose limits on four pollutants emitted from power plants was adopted this week by the House Economic Matters Committee - the same panel that rejected a similar bill a year ago. The committee's 15-6 vote sends the legislation to the full House.

The committee preserved a loophole - added by the Senate in that chamber's version of the bill - allowing the state to waive penalties for power plants that violate new pollution limits if they can show that the cost of required filtration equipment has risen significantly and installing it "may significantly increase electric rates."

The bill would require an 80 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2010, along with lesser cuts to three other pollutants. The law, if passed, would replace Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed Maryland Clean Power Rule and go farther than his regulations by requiring a 10 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, which scientists say causes global warming.

Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said he isn't worried about the loophole because the Maryland Department of the Environment already is allowed discretion to waive penalties for pollution violations.

"I think this bill will have a major impact on the public health of the state of Maryland, because of the toxic emissions that will be reduced over the next 12 years," Hubbard said.

Tom Pelton

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