Early-voting vitriol

June 28, 2006

Unless a court intervenes, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s effort to bring Maryland's early-voting law to referendum has failed for a lack of legal signatures. That's the good news. Now it's time to put a moratorium on all the unfounded accusations that have accompanied this dubious effort.

Last week, the State Board of Elections found that Marylanders for Fair Elections submitted petitions with 16,924 valid names - or 138 fewer than needed to put the law on the fall ballot. Yet even in defeat, proponents couldn't help but claim that fraud was to blame. The petitioners' failure to provide the tiniest bit of evidence to back this claim up and the fact that Maryland is the 35th state to allow early voting have put a real crimp in their credibility.

Nevertheless, these same opponents filed suit yesterday to overturn the decision by the State Board of Elections. And elections officials in Montgomery County are reportedly taking a second look at some petitions to see if they counted correctly - a kind of late re-review that's of questionable legality.

Confused? Here are the facts: Opponents submitted required petitions in May. Local elections offices then had to verify the signatures within 20 days. (Two of the most common reasons a signature is disallowed, incidentally, are that the signer is not a registered voter or an entry wasn't properly witnessed by the petition's circulator.)

Who runs these troublesome local elections offices? Republicans mostly. That's right, the process is supervised by people appointed by Mr. Ehrlich. The governor may dislike Linda H. Lamone, the state elections administrator he's tried repeatedly to oust, but she had nothing to do with the outcome. Local officials who performed the review were just following the law.

Disallowing 20 percent or so of the signatures on a petition is not uncommon at all, by the way - and is why petitioners are advised to file far more than are needed.

The early-voting debate isn't over. Opponents may yet put a second early-voting bill (a less-consequential measure that specified certain procedures and polling places) on the fall ballot. That's not unreasonable. What is beyond the pale is to cast anything related to early voting as fraud when it so clearly isn't. Such empty rhetoric only reinforces the Democrats' claim that Republicans would like to keep as many voters away from the polls as possible this fall.

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