Early voting in Maryland?

October 09, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Maryland is a solidly blue state in presidential elections, and the state's governor and legislature are elected in non-presidential years. So, aside from 1st Congressional District residents who are deciding whether Republican Andy Harris or Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. will be their new representative, in 2008 in the Old Line State, there's just not much electoral excitement.

But there are also two statewide ballot questions, dealing with slot machines and early voting. Slots have received a lot of attention over the years, so in this column I'll be examining Question 1, the early voting measure.

The measure would amend Article 1 of the state constitution to allow voters to cast votes up to two weeks in advance of Election Day, and would also allow for casting votes outside one's home precinct. The latter votes would still count in the precinct of residence; the provision is intended to let voters opt for more convenient locations, such as near their workplaces.

The General Assembly passed early voting legislation in 2005 and 2006, but an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge ruled those measures unconstitutional. The legislature responded last year by passing an amendment for ballot approval. If adopted by the voters Nov. 4, the amendment will constitutionalize the right to cast early or out-of-precinct votes.

Regular readers of this column might suspect my lock-step support for any amendment that is generally supported in the legislature by Democrats and opposed by many Republicans. But I'm wary about early voting, and my concern has nothing to do with partisanship. It's simply this: The election isn't over two weeks before it's over.

Because the messages and actions of candidates and parties are not complete, voting early seems fundamentally undemocratic - or, at the very least, dangerously nondeliberative. Early voters would also be making decisions without the benefit of any media reports, exposes and candidate profiles that are published in the final days of the election.

Imagine if judges decided cases before hearing the closing arguments. Heck, imagine if judges on American Idol or Dancing with the Stars refused to watch the last 30 seconds of a routine before deciding! And yet voters in some states - including Ohio, a pivotal swing state - are already voting even though the presidential debates are not finished.

Early voting advocates might argue that by mid-October, millions of American voters have already, and perhaps long ago, made up their minds about the presidential candidates, and that no new information will change that. Indeed, a sizable chunk of the American electorate probably decided a year ago October, or maybe as far back as October 2004, which party's candidate they would vote for in the November 2008 presidential race.

Still, even if only for a small and shrinking share of undecided voters, something important - decisive, you might say - could happen after an early vote is cast but before Election Day.

Remember how, in the waning days of the 2000 presidential campaign, we learned, probably from an Al Gore campaign leak, that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunken driving? Four years later, there was an equally curious Osama bin Laden video that appeared during the final days of the presidential race.

We can't know for sure the effects of these "October surprises" or the late-stage media reporting. But we do know that people who voted already could not include this new information in their calculus.

Consider, too, that in races for Congress or lower offices, the candidate may have raised only enough money or raised it so late that he or she doesn't go on the air or send direct mail until the very end of the race, thereby magnifying the problem of early voting. Just because somebody decided in early September - say, after Sen. John McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate - that he was going to support the Republican ticket, does not mean that same voter has also figured out whom to back for Congress or a judgeship.

About three dozen states permit early voting, and the Supreme Court has generally validated their right to do so. But if the intent is provide maximal access, there are other options.

Why not make national elections a two-day event (say, on Sunday and Monday, so there's a weekend day)? Keep polls open longer, and permit same-day registration. Allowing people to cast votes outside their home precincts also seems reasonable. Any or all of these measures would provide easier voting access.

But I'm sorry: Easier is not the same as earlier.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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