Marylanders will have the opportunity to vote on an early-voting referendum in November, but the future of the practice remains mired in politics and legal challenges.
The Maryland State Board of Elections certified that the volunteer group Marylanders for Fair Elections submitted the required 51,185 valid signatures for a referendum on one of two early-voting bills passed by the General Assembly in the past two years.
But the original and broader early-voting bill passed in 2005 remains under legal challenge.
The group formed a campaign committee yesterday that allows it to raise funds and launch an advertising effort on the referendum.
"We need to make sure the voters understand that the integrity of the electoral process is at stake here," said Thomas Roskelly, head of the group, which has the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "Our issue is not early voting itself. It's the manner in which the General Assembly has instituted early voting with no safeguards."
Under Maryland law, only legislation approved by the Assembly can be petitioned to referendum, giving voters a say. The state does not allow citizen or interest-group initiatives on the ballot.
Marylanders for Fair Elections gathered signatures on both early-voting bills. The main legislation was vetoed by the governor after it was passed in 2005, and the Assembly overrode his veto this year.
State elections officials ruled the petition on the main bill invalid after an attorney general's opinion that signatures should have been gathered last year. The group sued to restore the petition, and the Court of Appeals will take up the issue Tuesday.
That bill faces another legal challenge from two Baltimore attorneys who filed suit in Queen Anne's County Circuit Court last week, arguing that the General Assembly lacks constitutional authority to change election dates.
If the main bill makes it to referendum, it could prevent early voting this year, said Roskelly, but Board of Elections officials disagree.
The second measure, passed this year, lists specific early-voting polling locations and other requirements for the practice. Because it was passed as emergency legislation, it cannot suspend early voting this year.
Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Davis, counsel to the Board of Elections, said the 2005 bill sets the structure for early voting. So if it doesn't make it to a voter referendum, the vote on the secondary bill might be moot. "Early voting would probably continue even if it's repealed by voters," Davis said.
Under early voting, selected precincts would be open for five days before primary and general elections.
The bills have been a major source of political division between the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and Ehrlich, a Republican.
Democrats say the approach, which is used in more than 30 states, is designed to increase turnout.
Republicans argue that the measures were carelessly pushed through without safeguards to protect against fraud.
Ehrlich's office called the news about the signatures "encouraging."
"The fact that more than 100,000 signatures accompanied this petition demonstrates there is deep and broad dissatisfaction with the legislature's early-voting scheme," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman.