New election judge setup urged

50-50 party split would yield to nonpartisan basis

General Assembly

February 09, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Lawmakers have proposed ending the state requirement that two Democrats and two Republicans oversee election returns at every precinct.

The move is aimed at avoiding scrambles for poll workers from a minority party on Election Day. The change would allow election officials to hire all poll workers statewide on a nonpartisan basis.

The General Assembly is weighing dozens of bills that would fine-tune election laws in response to problems during last year's campaign, such as candidates changing their names to get a better position on the ballot and a shortage of election judges that caused long waits outside polling places.

Baltimore County Sen. Delores G. Kelley's proposal to change the poll worker requirement would drastically simplify the administration of this fall's mayoral election. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city 9-to-1.

During last year's chaotic primary, about 10 percent of the city's precincts opened more than an hour late, some because there were not enough judges representing each party. The delays prompted state and city leaders to call for volunteers. Weeks later, more than 1,300 people had answered the call, but only 125 were Republicans. That number slowly grew.

"We try to be careful about checks and balances, but this one is now turning out to be counterproductive," Kelley, a Democrat, told members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which handles election matters.

The state's elections administrator, Linda H. Lamone, recommended that the committee weaken, but not abolish, partisan recruitment. Rather than hire two Democrats and two Republicans per precinct, local election officials would need to hire only one member of each of the major parties to serve as chief judges.

"The bipartisan pair of chief election judges is also generally responsible for transporting the memory cards and ballots back to the election office after the polls close," Lamone wrote to the committee. "It is important that the two individuals responsible for these polling place duties are of different political parties."

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, called the Kelley proposal a means for officials to skirt their duties.

"It's inappropriate to continue to change the rules because, at the top of the pyramid, things are not being completed," she said.

Kelley said her goal is to reduce lines at polling places, not security measures.

Another piece of legislation that aims to shorten Election Day lines - a state constitutional amendment to allow for multiple days of early voting at a small number of polling places - was approved by a committee this week and is headed for debate in the full Senate today.

Supporters of early voting must win passage of the amendment to achieve their goal because the state's highest court said in a recent decision that Maryland's Constitution clearly requires that elections be held on one day and that votes be cast in home precincts.

A constitutional amendment requires the support of three-fifths of each legislative chamber and is not subject to a gubernatorial veto.

If approved, the issue would be on the fall 2008 ballot.

Democrats have long promoted adding five days of voting as a convenience for working families. Republicans have opposed it as a political ploy to drum up turnout among Democrats.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee approved the measure 8-3. All three opponents were Republicans. One of the opponents, Sen. J. Robert Hooper of Harford County, said the measure isn't needed.

"We already have early voting," he said. "All you have to do is request an absentee ballot and send it back."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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