Early decisions

April 23, 2006

Unless the courts or a belated referendum effort intervene, Maryland voters will have the chance to cast their ballots early this year. So what's all the fuss about? The new law simply means that one week prior to both the primary and general elections, 38 polling places will be open for business. For five days, this will allow registered voters to cast their ballots. In most counties, a single polling place will be stationed in the county seat. But in each of the seven largest jurisdictions, three precincts will be open.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and many Republicans have complained that the General Assembly has stacked the locations of the polling places in the so-called Big Seven to benefit Democrats. And in fact, legislation enacted this year (after the legislature overrode Mr. Ehrlich's veto) set the locations, and the authors were all Democrats, an egregious ethical lapse. But on closer inspection, the sites are not unreasonable. In Baltimore County, a key battleground for the governor's race, they are Towson University and the public libraries in Essex on the east side and Randallstown on the west. All three are located near population centers and are easily accessed by public transportation and highways. Nobody stuck a voting booth in the back room of a union hall.

But interestingly, it isn't these locations but the fact that there's going to be early voting at all that seems to bother Mr. Ehrlich most. He has launched a petition drive to give voters a chance to reverse the 2005 law (also vetoed by Mr. Ehrlich but overridden three months ago) that created it. This is odd, not just because 35 states, Democrat- and Republican-leaning alike, have adopted early voting, but because such an effort, if mounted at all, should have been undertaken a year ago. The Maryland attorney general's staff has concluded (in the context of another matter) that a bill can't be brought to voter referendum so late in the process; that the law has already been amended (by the legislature's 2006 actions) just complicates things further.

Maryland Republicans claim early voting raises the potential for fraud. This is true only to the extent that longer banking hours increase opportunities for bank robbers. Thanks to a supplemental budget appropriation submitted this year, polling places will soon be equipped with computer software to keep constant track of voting records. Such a program can prevent a miscreant from attempting to vote at multiple sites, something much harder to detect with the current recordkeeping standards.

So again we must ask, what's the fuss? The record in other states suggests early voting is a convenience to the electorate and can boost turnout, albeit marginally. At the least it frees party faithful to cast ballots early and devote more time to voter turnout drives. And after all, the GOP gets that benefit, too.

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