An Anne Arundel County judge dealt a major blow yesterday to a governor-backed petition drive that seeks to overturn early-voting provisions enacted by the General Assembly.
It was the most recent setback for Marylanders for Fair Elections, a volunteer group supported by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The organization is trying to place a referendum on the November ballot that could reverse two early-voting bills passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature.
The group has been embroiled in a dispute with the State Board of Elections about whether it has submitted enough valid signatures to move forward with the effort.
The organization filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging the State Board of Elections unlawfully disqualified part of its petition drive when it determined the effort was not launched in time and did not yield enough valid signatures. But Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Paul Hackner declined the organization's request for judicial review yesterday, saying Marylanders for Fair Elections missed a critical deadline to file the request.
The organization needed to ask the court to intervene within 10 days of receiving notification from the elections board in early June, Hackner said.
Thomas Roskelly, leader of Marylanders for Fair Elections and an ally of the governor's, called the judge's reasoning unfair and promised to appeal the decision. He said he was on vacation in North Carolina when the State Board of Elections sent its June 8 letter saying the drive had been disqualified. Roskelly said he did not receive the notice until June 17.
"For this major effort on behalf of thousands of petitioners to be disqualified because I was on vacation is a massive injustice," he said after the judge's ruling.
Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Davis said the judge's decision made perfect sense.
"There was a limited time by which to file a lawsuit -- 10 days," he said. "We are all under tight deadlines to enforce the laws and prepare for this election."
Democrats and Republicans have been battling over early voting -- which allows select precincts to open for five days in the week before election day -- for two years.
Each side accuses the other of using the issue to gain an edge in the election. Democrats say they passed early-voting provisions to encourage turnout, and they say Ehrlich's resistance to the initiative stems from his desire to keep turnout low in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.
Republicans have accused Democrats of carelessly advancing early-voting legislation without establishing safeguards against fraud.
Speaking to reporters after he formally filed paper work for re-election yesterday, Ehrlich faulted the legislature for what he predicted will be a lengthy court battle.
"I suspect that the reporters in this room are going to be spending a lot of time in courtrooms over the next couple of months because of this series of power grabs by the leadership of the Maryland General Assembly," he said.
Ehrlich said large numbers of Democratic voters have also taken part in the petition drive, saying there are "many, many members of the Democratic Party in the state of Maryland that share a sense of frustration, angst, embarrassment concerning this leadership. And they will be heard in November as well."
David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party said the governor and the petitioners owe the elections board an apology.
"They failed," he said "They were given the job of collecting so many signatures by such and such a date, and they failed to meet that requirement. Beyond that, Roskelly, the Maryland Republican Party and Gov. Bob Ehrlich all owe every board of election member and administrator, at the county and at the state, one gigantic apology."
At issue are two measures adopted by the legislature. One, passed in 2005, sanctions early voting. The governor vetoed the bill, but the Assembly overrode him this year. The other measure, adopted this year, names polling sites and other requirements for early voting.
The petition gatherers fell 138 signatures short in meeting a May 31 preliminary deadline on the first measure, and produced enough initial signatures for the second.
Yesterday was also the deadline for Marylanders for Fair Elections to submit the remaining signatures -- or 51,185 names of registered voters -- needed to place the issue on the November ballot. Those signatures now go to local elections boards which will verify that they represent registered voters and that petitioners followed legal guidelines in collecting them.
Despite falling short on one of the drives, Roskelly said yesterday he was pushing ahead on both measures. He said that the group submitted more than 240,000 signatures yesterday -- more than enough to achieve its goal.
"We are absolutely going forward," said Roskelly. "We must do this on behalf of the voters in the state of Maryland."
Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.