Court issues voting opinion

Written decision elaborates on ruling against early balloting

December 12, 2006|by a Sun reporter

The Maryland Constitution makes it clear that elections must be held on a single day in November, and that voters must cast their choices in home election districts, the state's highest court said in a written decision released yesterday elaborating on its August ruling striking down multiple-day early voting.

Still, the debate over the practice could continue during the 90-day General Assembly session that begins next month, one lawmaker involved in the issue said.

The General Assembly passed early-voting legislation in 2005 and refined it this year, authorizing selected polling places in each county to open five days before Election Day.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed both bills, arguing in part that they opened the state's election system to fraud, and that they were pushed through by Democrats who were trying to gain an upper hand in this year's election. The Assembly overrode Ehrlich's decisions, but voters aligned with the governor successfully sued to block the practice.

In two dozen states

Democrats said that early voting, available in about two dozen other states, creates more opportunity and flexibility for voters with tight work schedules or other obligations to participate in elections.

State and local elections officials were preparing to open polls before the Sept. 12 primary when an Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge ruled that the plan was unconstitutional.

The decision by Judge Ronald A. Silkworth was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, which did not provide its full reasoning until yesterday.

In the unanimous opinion, written by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the Court of Appeals judges said the language of state constitution is clear in requiring that elections be held on a single day, not over multiple days.

The court ruled that a Texas case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court did not offer appropriate guidance, because the question there was whether Texas's early voting procedures were in conflict with federal law - not that state's constitution.

The appellate judges also found that the Maryland Constitution's requirement that a voter "shall be entitled to vote in the ward or election district in which he resides" rules out the possibility of voting elsewhere.

The Assembly's early-voting plan would have allowed voters to cast their ballots at precincts outside their home counties.

More discussion

Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat and member of the election law subcommittee of the House Ways and Means committee, said he expects that the Assembly to discuss again next year ways to implement early voting.

The convenience of the process and the absence of fraud in states that have it make it an important initiative, he said.

"There may be other ways of going about it than amending the constitution," Cardin said.

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said continued plans about changing Maryland's elections must include members of both parties - which did not happen over the past two years, she noted.

A constitutional amendment that paves the way for early voting is a good idea, she said, because it would require passage at the polls.

"If this issue is something the General Assembly takes up, it should be done with the people having their voice directly heard, such as putting it to the ballot," Miller said.

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