Early voting sparks dispute

GOP trying to overturn Democratic-backed law allowing ballots to be cast five days before election


Maryland Democrats and Republicans appear to be on a legal and political collision course over a plan to allow early voting in November - with the GOP mobilizing to force a referendum to overturn an election bill the General Assembly passed in January over the governor's veto.

The Republicans' new drive to gather the more than 50,000 signatures needed to force a referendum continues a battle that has already involved two vetoes, two overrides and vituperative charges of partisan machinations by both sides. But the attorney general's office insists the early-voting measure can't be taken to referendum, pointing out that it has already taken effect as state law.

At issue is a bill passed last year and expanded in a subsequent measure this year. Under the legislation, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly allowed a five-day early voting period in all of the state's 24 jurisdictions.

Democrats argue that the expanded window for voting will encourage greater voter participation in elections. They contend that Republicans are fighting the measure because they want to suppress turnout - especially in African-American neighborhoods that often vote Democratic.

"Voter fraud is a red herring," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat.

But Republicans argue the early-voting measure, in combination with other election law changes, does open the door to fraud and stacks the deck against them. They say the Democrats skewed the process by selecting early voting sites that favor their party.

"The entire measure of early voting is just voter fraud waiting to happen," said Chris Cavey, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party.

In a sign that the 2006 election fray is off to an early and contentious start, Democrats held a news conference yesterday at Morgan State University to call attention to an e-mail from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign to Baltimore County GOP activists promoting the petition drive.

"What are the Republicans afraid of? Why are they afraid to let people exercise their right to vote?" said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat.

Democratic officials distributed an e-mail sent by Dave Schwartz of the Ehrlich for Governor campaign to Cavey, who then forwarded it to county GOP activists. Schwartz wrote that "left-leaning Democrats passed a horrific law" that would allow voters to cast their votes early "at precincts in Democratic strongholds."

"In order to fight massive voter fraud and possibly an election loss, Maryland Republicans must fight back!" he wrote. "We have the ability to put this issue on the ballot in November as a referendum, and let the citizens of this state decide whether this is a good idea."

The law does not restrict early voting to Democratic strongholds, though it appears friendly to that party's goals.

In 14 counties, the legislature provided for one central polling place - generally in the county seat - where voters can cast early ballots. In each of the seven most populous jurisdictions, the measure specified three early polling sites. Although they include some conservative-leaning locations such as western Ellicott City and Odenton, many of the sites are in heavily Democratic areas.

The GOP effort to challenge last year's legislation flies in the face of a 2005 opinion by the attorney general's office that apparently would bar a challenge to the law, which allows a five-day early-voting period. The law took effect 30 days after the General Assembly voted in January to override Ehrlich's veto.

The state Republican Party discounted the opinion. Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland GOP, noted that Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, is the father-in-law of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - a leading candidate to oppose Ehrlich in November.

"It's very obvious that the attorney general has a clear conflict of interest. His concern is about protecting his son-in-law, not about fair legal advice," she said.

The attorney general's opinion was issued last year about an unrelated law.

Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, counsel to the General Assembly, pointed to a letter sent in April 2005 in response to an inquiry from Del. Donald H. Dwyer regarding legislation on medical decision-making by domestic partners.

The opinion told the Anne Arundel County Republican that if a bill is passed and vetoed in one year, but the veto is overridden the next year, the law could not be brought to referendum by signatures gathered after the override. It said the time to gather signatures for a referendum was in the year the legislature first passed the bill.

Zarnoch said that while a sufficient number of referendum signatures can stay the effective date of a bill, it can't suspend a law already on the books.

Miller said the GOP is ready to challenge that opinion in court.

"We believe this is something that needs serious scrutiny, and we will pursue this to the highest level if need be," she said.

David Paulson, the Maryland Democrats' communication director, said his party "will fight tooth and nail to expand voting opportunities for every Marylander."

At the Democratic news conference, four Baltimore Democratic lawmakers were joined by about a dozen Morgan students who insisted the campus deserves a polling place. "If taken away, it sends a message of disdain on the part of the state," said Jasmine Hazel, president of Morgan's chapter of the College Democrats of America.

Morgan is one of three Baltimore locations specified as early-voting sites in a bill passed this year by the legislature - again overriding an Ehrlich veto.

That bill can be petitioned to referendum, but both sides concede the 2006 election would still have to be conducted under its provisions because it was passed as emergency legislation. Thus, the GOP is concentrating its fire on the earlier bill.


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