Time to vote

September 11, 2006

About 1 million Marylanders are expected to cast ballots in the primary election tomorrow. That may sound like a lot but it's less than one-third of the state's 3.1 million registered voters. The last significantly higher turnout was in 1994 when the state's Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries were closely contested and even then only about 40 percent of voters showed up.

Some claim this is because life has become hectic. Others see signs of voter disengagement, a loss of faith in the political system and perhaps even a protest movement, albeit a passive one. None of these rationalizations is satisfactory. Ultimately, a no-show is a kind of vote for the status quo - or, perhaps more accurately, for letting one-third of your neighbors make your most important decisions about government for you.

Unfortunately, too many people keep only a half-ear or less cocked to matters of public policy, and there may be some who believe that their votes will not count - or will be miscounted. Recent debates over early voting and the state's touch-screen voting machines have produced much misleading rhetoric.

Here's the reality. For good or bad, there is no early voting this year. The state's approximately 19,000 voting units are tested, locked down and ready to go. These same units have been used successfully in Montgomery and Prince George's counties since 2002 and most of the rest of the state since 2004.

And while the system lacks a paper trail - an option we'd like to see added - it is nonetheless secure. It's entirely possible some machines will fail (all man-made devices do from time to time), but a deliberate corruption of the results has never been less likely.

Even individual voter fraud - that mantra of certain conspiracy theorists - has been made even less plausible (a single case arose from the last election). The addition of an electronic voter check-in system not only will keep closer track of who has cast a ballot but also should reduce waiting time at the polls tomorrow.

Finally, there may be some voters who stay home on the theory that the more important election takes place in November. But that reasoning overlooks the many contests where the primary generally settles things - particularly in communities such as Baltimore where most voters are affiliated with one political party. In those elections, a few dozen votes, perhaps even a single vote, can make all the difference.

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