Early voting canceled

High court also removes Perez's name from ballot

High court says no to early voting

Maryland Votes 2006

August 26, 2006|By Melissa Harris and Andrea F. Siegel | Melissa Harris and Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporters

The state's highest court threw primary election preparations into turmoil yesterday, canceling five days of early voting and removing one of three Democratic candidates for attorney general, Thomas E. Perez, from the ballot.

The Maryland Court of Appeals issued brief orders a few hours after hearing oral arguments. The rationale for the rulings - one of which handed Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a significant victory in his feud with a Democratic-controlled General Assembly that he argues has overstepped its bounds - will be released at a later date.

The court disqualified Perez, saying he had not met the constitutional requirement of practicing law in the state for 10 years. That reshapes the contest to replace retiring Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and could mean that every Democratic ballot in the state of Maryland has to be reprogrammed.

"Although I disagree with the decision, the Court of Appeals makes the rules, and I play by the rules," Perez said.

Thousands of paper absentee ballots with Perez's name on them already have been mailed. In addition, some electronic voting machines have been programmed, tested and sealed, not to be opened again until the Sept. 12 primary.

The entire testing process, which ensures that the machines accurately tally votes, can take up to 18 days, depending on the number of machines a county needs, said Gilles W. Burger, chairman of the State Board of Elections.

"We have a lot of work to do," he said. "We're not really sure what we're going to do. We're doing some research right now."

As for the cancellation of early voting, which had been set to begin on Sept. 5, Burger said, "That sound you hear is a collective sigh of relief from the 24 local boards of election and the state board."

Although early voting has been enacted in some form in 33 other states with little fanfare, the governor's office has contended that the Assembly hastily approved it in order to give registered Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in Maryland 2-1, an edge at the polls.

Democratic supporters said the practice could increase turnout and allow voters who work odd shifts or commute long distances to get to polling places more easily. But Ehrlich and other Republicans repeatedly raised concerns that lawmakers were inviting multiple voting, fraud and abuse with an ill-conceived plan.

In a statement, Ehrlich called the appeals court decision "a victory for the Maryland Constitution and for citizens who want fair and accurate elections in Maryland."

"As reflected by the Court's decision ... the General Assembly's early voting scheme was flawed, irresponsible and a blatant overreach of its authority under the Maryland Constitution," the governor said. "I look forward to working with lawmakers next year to ensure that the laudable concept of early voting is implemented in a far more thoughtful, nonpartisan and constitutional manner."

The governor and the Republican Party see this year's election as a major opportunity to shake up decades of Democratic dominance in the General Assembly, and yesterday's decision gives them more ammunition for their argument that there must be a greater check on Democrats' power in Annapolis.

"I think what the voters are going to see is an out-of-control legislature that needs balance restored to it," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the Republican whip from Southern Maryland, pointing out that the courts also tossed out the so-called "Wal-Mart bill," which required the huge retailer to pay more for employees' health care. "The Democratic majorities are out of control."

Yesterday's ruling upheld a decision from Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth, who wrote that the "General Assembly exceeded its Constitutional authority" in approving two early voting statutes.

The two Baltimore attorneys who successfully challenged early voting, M. Albert Figinski and Christopher R. West, argued that because the state's Constitution says that a voter is "entitled to vote in the ward or election district in which he resides at all elections," the Constitution must be changed to explicitly permit early voting, which was set to be held at no more than three polling sites in each county.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and strong supporter of early voting, said that it is crucial for Maryland to adopt an early voting system to help seniors and people whose jobs make it difficult to vote on Election Day. The matter should be taken up again as soon as the legislature returns to Annapolis, he said.

"I'm sure in their decision, they will be quite instructive, indirectly if not directly, as to what must happen for us to have early voting," Cummings said. "Apparently, there is something procedural that we have done wrong, and now it's just a matter of correcting it."

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