Court hears arguments over early balloting

Ruling could come as early as today


An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge heard arguments yesterday in a case that could decide whether Marylanders will have an additional five days to cast votes this fall - a General Assembly effort that two Baltimore attorneys with close ties to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say violate the state's constitution.

M. Albert Figinski, who is married to Ehrlich's budget director, and Christopher R. West, the former legal counsel to the Maryland Republican Party, filed suit against the state elections board and its administrator, Linda H. Lamone, after the Democrat-controlled General Assembly overrode two Ehrlich vetoes and authorized early voting. Figinski and West argued yesterday that only a constitutional amendment could change election dates.

Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth said after yesterday's six-hour hearing that he hopes to rule today or tomorrow. Both parties have said that should they lose, they will appeal to the state's highest court.

Democrats and the attorney defending Lamone - Assistant Attorney General Michael D. Berman - have argued that early voting is about convenience. Still, many political observers say that if the procedure boosts turnout, Democrats - who outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 - would benefit more.

The attorney general's office noted that more than 30 states allow voters to go to the polls early and those efforts have survived litigation numerous times.

For instance, a federal appeals court ruled that early voting in Texas federal elections was permitted because the election "is not decided" until "voters go to the polls" on Election Day. Berman relied heavily on that logic, pointing out that if a tsunami struck Maryland after early voting but before Election Day, the handful of early ballots wouldn't be enough to decide the election. Election Day would have to be rescheduled, he said.

But, West and Figinski argued, support for this logic comes from federal case law that doesn't apply in a state matter.

Figinski's argument focused on the first paragraph of Article I of the state constitution: qualified voters "shall be entitled to vote in the ward or election district in which he resides at all elections to be held in this State." Voters can't do that during early voting, Figinski argued, to which Berman replied that "entitled" doesn't mean "required."

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