Voting rights and wrongs

November 05, 2006

As if Maryland's Election Day wasn't bogged down in enough uncertainty, now comes the specter of poll watchers whose purpose may be to discourage people from voting. Or perhaps they'll be there - as sponsoring state GOP officials claim - to prevent fraud. We'd like to think that the latter is their sole motivation. But the watchers' instruction manual strikes a somewhat confrontational tone, particularly for a job that's traditionally been about observing rather than policing participants. Certainly, there was no indication of fraud in September's primary (and precious little two years ago or four years ago) to justify such an aggressive approach.

Not only might voters be intimidated, but election judges could find themselves bullied, too. The GOP poll watchers' 13-page manual instructs watchers to remind judges with whom they disagree that they may be criminally prosecuted. If judges are the weak link in the voting process (and the primary demonstrated that they are), this can only make matters worse. To be fair, Democrats have their own poll watchers, but their focus, according to their "voter protection" manual, is to "ensure that every eligible voter who wants to vote gets to vote."

In either case, voters shouldn't be cowed. The best defense is to know one's rights. State law permits poll watchers but it also restricts what they can do. They cannot, for instance, talk to voters or challenge them on any grounds other than identity. In addition, voters should be aware of the following:

Voter eligibility. You have to be registered to vote in Maryland to cast a ballot Tuesday. You should show up at your polling place between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. If you are unsure about which is your precinct, contact the state or local election boards or visit the state Web site, www.elections.state.md.us.

Identity requirements. The vast majority of Maryland voters are not required to show ID to vote. When checking in, you must answer two questions - month and day of birth and address. However, certain first-time voters who registered by mail may have to show an accepted form of ID. These include a driver's license, U.S. passport, government-issued ID card, utility bill, bank statement, government check or other government document showing voter's name and address. But even if you don't have acceptable ID, you can cast a provisional ballot.

Voter challenges. Historically, these are rare. If a poll watcher claims that you are not who you say you are, a judge will ask you to show ID. If you do not have acceptable ID, you will have to cast a provisional ballot. The challenger will have to sign a sworn statement giving his reason for believing your identity false. You will be given a chance to offer your side. Whether your identity is validated and your ballot counted will be determined later by the local election board.

There are a number of steps voters can take to minimize the potential for problems on Election Day. It's generally best to vote early to avoid the late rush, to bring ID even though it's not required in most instances, and to ask for help from an election judge if you are uncertain of what to do.

Partisan wrangling over election procedures has become a fact of life. But with Maryland's top two races looking like cliffhangers, voters should not be deterred from showing up and being counted.

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