Suit filed against early voting

Shore filing claims Assembly lacks authority to change election dates

July 19, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Two Baltimore attorneys -- including the former legal counsel for the Maryland Republican Party -- filed suit in Queen Anne's County Circuit Court to block early voting this fall, alleging that the General Assembly lacks constitutional authority to alter election dates.

M. Albert Figinski and Christopher R. West filed the lawsuit Monday on behalf of three Queen Anne's County residents. The Maryland State Board of Elections, Linda H. Lamone, the state's elections administrator, and the state were named as defendants.

"This is not an action which says early voting is good or early voting is bad," Figinski said. "It is an action that says that to engraft early voting in Maryland, you have to do it by a constitutional amendment."

FOR THE RECORD - An article July 19 in the Maryland section incorrectly reported the time frame in which attorney Christopher R. West donated $5,250 to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign for governor. It was done within two election cycles, the current and previous one.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The General Assembly passed laws each of the past two years authorizing early voting, which allows select polling places to open for five days before an election.

Democrats say the procedure will increase turnout. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, vetoed both bills, arguing that Assembly leaders were inviting fraud. Conventional political wisdom holds that higher turnout in elections in Maryland benefits Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans nearly 2 to 1.

The governor's re-election campaign is backing an effort to overturn the laws through a petition drive, and Ehrlich has long predicted a court challenge.

Aware of lawsuit

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said that the governor was aware of the filing but to his knowledge had not met with the attorneys involved.

"Don't make anything out of this other than the fact that it is a constitutional challenge made by lawyers savvy at constitutional law," Figinski said.

West has donated $5,250 to Ehrlich during this election cycle, according to state records, and could not be reached yesterday; his secretary said he is on vacation.

Figinski, whom records show as donating $1,100 to the governor, is well-versed in state law and helped successfully challenge redistricting maps drawn by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 2002.

The lawsuit is the second of two challenges to the Assembly's early voting measures.

Marylanders for Fair Elections, a volunteer group supported by the governor, is trying to place a referendum on the November ballot to do away with early voting. The petition drive was ruled invalid by state elections officials, but proponents have sued to restore it, and an appeals court is considering the request.

Speaking to reporters after filing paperwork for re-election, Ehrlich said, "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."

Fawell said that the governor's comments were not meant to be an invitation for lawsuits but rather an expression of the "grass-roots sentiments" against early voting.

One of the plaintiffs, Bettye B. Speed of Stevensville, said that she signed on to the lawsuit because she "believes in it," and referred further questions to her attorney.

Another plaintiff, Marirose Joan Capozzi, who is a member of the county's Republican central committee, did not return a telephone message left at her family's business yesterday. The third, Charles W. Carter Sr., could not be reached.

Early-voting ruling

A spokesman for the attorney general's office, which signs off on the legality of bills passed by the General Assembly, said yesterday that early voting is legal because the state constitution does not "prohibit the casting of ballots early."

"Rather, it requires only that the ballots be counted on a particular day," the spokesman said.

State Democratic leaders are vowing to proceed with an education campaign to teach voters the advantages of early voting.

"It seems there are a number of people who want to throw roadblocks in their way, and it's quite disturbing," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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