Early voting up for a vote

Md. electorate to decide if polls can open before Election Day

Election 2008

November 02, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Marylanders will decide Tuesday whether the state can create an early voting law, but Democratic and Republican leaders disagree about the impact such a change would have on the integrity of elections.

The proposal in Question 1 would amend the state constitution and allow the General Assembly to craft a law adding Maryland to the list of 32 states that permit voters to go to polling places before Election Day. The only neighboring state that has early voting is West Virginia.

State Democratic leaders say early voting could ease lines at polls and encourage more participation in elections.

"It really is an outmoded concept to say you must stand in line," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore. "There is no harm in making it easier to vote."

But Republican opponents worry that the initiative could invite voter fraud because it doesn't require voters to show identification at the polls and it could allow early voters to cast ballots anywhere in the state. They say the Democratic-controlled General Assembly could pack favorable parts of the state with early voting centers while neglecting heavily Republican areas.

"What those folks in Annapolis are doing is just trying to get the people to approve this thing and not know the details," said Republican Party Chairman James Pelura, criticizing the measure.

In Maryland, measures that encourage higher turnout are usually considered better for Democrats, because they outnumber Republicans 2-1.

Nationally, early voters have tended to be white, wealthier, better educated and Republican, said James Hicks, a researcher at the Center for Early Voting at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

But, so far this year that trend has been "turned on its head," he said: Black and Democratic voters have flocked to early polling places in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

In states with early voting, there have been only 3 percent or 4 percent increases in turnout in the last few elections, Hicks said. "Really what early voting did was making it more convenient for people who already wanted to vote."

More and more voters are taking advantage of the opportunity to vote early, he said. About 15 percent of voters went early in 2000. That increased to 20 percent in 2004 and this year he projects that 30 percent of all ballots will be cast before Nov. 4.

In Florida, for example, 26 percent of registered voters had gone to the polls by Oct. 26.

This year, Maryland election officials are warning about long lines, particularly in Baltimore where a largely African-American electorate is energized by Barack Obama's candidacy. City voters also will face an 11-page ballot that includes 16 city-specific questions such as bond funding for cultural institutions.

"I don't think in our lifetime we'll ever see an election of this magnitude," said Armistead Jones, the city's top elections official. He wants voters to come prepared with a filled-out sample ballot and to vote between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to keep the lines down.

The General Assembly did pass early voting measures in 2005 and again in 2006, and overrode vetoes by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Those laws would have opened polls starting a week before the election, and would have required counties to set up centralized polling centers. The early voting centers were different than regular polling stations and required that residents vote outside their regular precincts.

But before an early ballot was cast, Marirose Joan Capozzi of the Queen Anne's County Republican Central Committee challenged the laws. She argued that the state's constitution defines an election as occurring on a single day and that votes must be cast in the proper precinct or ward to count.

In December 2006 the state's highest court agreed with Capozzi, nullifying all early voting provisions. The decision also tightened the interpretation of absentee voting and disqualified voting by provisional ballots, said Linda H. Lamone, the state's elections administrator.

If the early voting measure is approved by voters, the General Assembly would still need to pass another law. And Del. Jon Cardin, an Owings Mills Democrat who chairs the panel that writes election laws, said legislators would start from scratch.

But the ballot initiative offers clues. It allows the legislature to open polls during the two-week period before Election Day. Other states have come up with a wide variation of start dates; half a dozen allow residents to go to the polls in late September.

Potential costs are not detailed on the ballot. Previous early voting laws saddled localities with the cost of paying for election judges to work more days and with fees for opening polling places, though the state put aside $13 million in 2007 to purchase additional equipment and offset some local costs.

The statewide ballot initiative could also affect absentee voting, by letting the legislature grant Marylanders the option of voting by mail without providing an excuse for not making it to the polls.

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