Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. escalated his assault yesterday on an early-voting system approved by the Democrat-controlled legislature this year, calling it a "farce," questioning its integrity and renewing threats of a lawsuit at the state Board of Public Works meeting.
Heading into what many believe will be the most competitive election season in modern Maryland history, each party is accusing the other of manipulating the election system to its advantage.
Republicans say Democrats realize they could never win a fair fight and have chosen to install new rules and procedures that invite fraud and deceit. But Democrats say Republicans want to suppress turnout because they know that a true majority of Marylanders might not support Ehrlich's re-election.
Ehrlich is in full attack mode against the new procedure. His campaign workers are vigorously trying to collect the more than 52,000 signatures necessary to bring to referendum two bills establishing early voting in Maryland, which the Republican executive says could throw the 2006 election into chaos and its results into doubt.
"This is important. ... It's about the thing we value most," Ehrlich said yesterday. "I suspect this will end up in one or more courts ... in the fairly immediate future."
Democrats in the legislature passed several bills in the past year to refine the state's election system - including making absentee ballots easier to use and smoothing the way for voters whose names are not included on precinct rolls to cast provisional ballots.
But the adoption of early voting, which is in place in more than 30 states and which Democrats say will increase turnout, has caused the greatest consternation. Under the new system, selected polling places in each county and in Baltimore will be open from Tuesday through Saturday during the week before the primary and general elections. Voters would be able to cast ballots near their places of employment and during odd hours.
Advocates for fair elections say there is cause for concern about whether so large a change to Maryland voting procedure can be implemented by this fall without risking problems. But they say technology is available that could make the election - even with early voting - smoother and more accurate than ever.
Ehrlich and his supporters say they don't oppose early voting in general, just the way it is being implemented by the Democrats who control Maryland's General Assembly.
Tom Roskelly, an Annapolis Republican and longtime friend of Ehrlich who was recruited to head up the petition drive, said an early-voting system needs to be accompanied by a voter identification requirement; an audit trail for the voting machine; and thorough purging of the voter rolls for fraudulent, duplicate and out-of-date registrations. The Democrats, he said, precluded these measures.
"I'm just very concerned about what the safeguards are," he said. "I'll salute anybody who wants to expand voter rights, but the state is responsible for making sure those voter rights are also safeguarded."
In its study of problems in the 2004 presidential election, the American Center for Voting Rights, a nonpartisan voting system watchdog group, reported widespread voter fraud in states across the nation. But it mentioned only one instance of people trying to vote at an early-voting site and then again at their precinct on Election Day, one of the chief concerns of Maryland Republicans.
In that case, which occurred in Broward County, Fla., none of the double votes was counted, and the perpetrators' names were forwarded to prosecutors.
The potential exists for double-voting as election administrators struggle to develop accurate statewide voter databases and update them to reflect who has voted early, said Mark F. "Thor" Hearne II, general counsel to the American Center for Voting Rights.
States with early-voting systems like the one Maryland is adopting generally stop balloting for a few days before Election Day so officials can cross-check early voting logs with precinct voter lists, Hearne said. That typically means going through the lists by hand and crossing off names.
"In any early-voting system, the integrity of that system as an honest way to conduct an election is totally dependent, much more so than a regular election, on an accurate, real-time statewide voter roll," Hearne said. "Without that, you have eliminated all of the many major safeguards against voter fraud."
The Maryland State Board of Elections' plan to deal with that problem is a high-tech device called an "e-poll book." Instead of crossing names off a printed list, election judges would make a few taps on a mini-computer screen that has real-time, networked access to the state's voter database.
The system can check whether a voter is registered and encode the correct ballot on a smart card - including races for local offices - even if the voter is not in his home precinct.