Ehrlich calls in appeal for absentee balloting

Automated message is directed to potential supporters

Maryland Votes 2006 -- 40 Days Until Nov., 7

September 28, 2006|By Andrew A. Green and Melissa Harris | Andrew A. Green and Melissa Harris,Sun reporters

In his most direct appeal yet to bypass Maryland's new electronic voting equipment, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sent an automated telephone message to potential supporters yesterday urging them to cast votes on paper absentee ballots.

The message, paid for by Ehrlich's re-election campaign, says the recipient will receive a request form by mail within a few days.

A significant increase in absentee voting could raise the cost and delay results of the November election but could also assuage doubts harbored by the governor and others about the reliability and accuracy of the current electronic voting system.

Democrats say it is standard procedure to send applications to voters who had previously used absentee ballots and acknowledge that they plan to target some supporters as well. But this year's effort comes in the aftermath of a troubled primary when polling places opened late and computers crashed, causing headaches for voters and election workers.

"I have no comfort level at all that these machines are going to operate under the pressure of general election turnout," Ehrlich said in an interview yesterday, reinforcing a message he has been delivering for days. "We're encouraging paper [absentee ballots] as an option because I have a confidence level with that."

Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver would not say how many voters received the calls or who was targeted, calling such details confidential campaign strategy.

The governor taped the message yesterday morning, and calls began in the evening, DeLeaver said, declining to reveal the duration or cost of the effort.

DeLeaver played down the outreach, noting that the campaign used a similar tactic in 2002.

But then, only voters with a valid excuse could obtain an absentee ballot. Today, because of a 2005 law vetoed by Ehrlich but restored by the General Assembly, no explanation is needed.

"Spreading the word about absentee ballots isn't new territory," she said. "This is another way to let Maryland voters know that they have options for making their vote count on Election Day."

Ehrlich, who originally championed the new touch-screen voting machines, has been increasingly critical of them since this spring. He has said the lack of a verifiable paper trail gives him doubts about the accuracy of the results in any election, and in recent weeks, he has publicly encouraged voters to use absentee ballots instead because they could be recounted by hand if an election is in dispute.

Yesterday, he made that pitch directly to potential supporters.

In the recorded message, Ehrlich says, "The single most important thing you can do to help my re-election campaign this year is vote. And I'm calling today to encourage you to vote by absentee ballot."

Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson said his party has sent absentee applications to targeted lists of voters - such as those who have voted absentee before and senior citizens. But he said a recorded message from the governor encouraging absentee balloting is curious considering his veto of the bill that made expanded absentee voting possible.

Ehrlich says in his message that because of a recent change in election law, voters can request absentee ballots for any reason "such as not having to wait in line on Election Day."

In a letter explaining his veto of the "no excuse" absentee voting bill in 2005, Ehrlich said such a system was "an invitation to greater voter fraud in the state."

Paulson said Ehrlich is evidently against any measures to make voting easier unless they benefit his base. "It's standard operating procedure in many ways [to send absentee ballot applications], but what's not standard operating procedure has been his effort to kill absentee voting, to kill early voting, to make it less convenient for people to cast ballots," he said.

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said that the party, not the campaign, would mail the absentee ballot requests. "We are responding to the change in election law allowing absentee balloting on demand," she said.

During the primary election, new devices to check in voters called "e-poll books" routinely crashed, leading to headaches for election judges and long lines for voters. Ehrlich repeated his call yesterday for the state to scrap them to avoid inconveniences that could discourage voters.

He also criticized the touch-screen voting machines, saying recent reports about possible vulnerabilities to the system make him worried that voters will not be able to trust the result.

Election officials said a widespread switch to absentee ballots could cause staff overload, delayed results and other problems, but they said they could be dealt with. It is more expensive to print and process absentee ballots than to use existing electronic voting machines, officials say.

For the Sept. 12 primary, voters requested 41,271 absentee ballots, and about 750,000 voters went to the polls.

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