Voters overwhelmingly favor early voting in Md.

Approval lets legislature enact law opening polls 2 weeks early

Election 2008

November 05, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

With many people waiting in line for hours to cast their ballots, Marylanders voted overwhelmingly yesterday to change the way future elections are conducted by allowing polling places to open two weeks before Election Day.

With more than half of precincts reporting, voters were approving Question 1 by a margin of more than 2 to 1, setting the stage for Maryland to join the 32 other states which allow early voting. Millions of Americans in those states cast their votes in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Specifically, the change approved to Maryland's constitution allows the General Assembly to enact an early-voting law. The Maryland Democratic party has pushed the idea for years, arguing that opening the polls sooner would afford more people an opportunity to participate in elections. Measures that increase turnout can be a boost to Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in the state 2 to 1.

"We've seen this early voting is a legitimate way to expand the franchise," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. He predicted the legislature would pass an early-voting law next year that is fair to both parties.

Del. Jon Cardin, an Owings Mills Democrat who chairs a panel that writes election law, said early voting "takes a lot of the burden and the pain off" local election boards.

The state's Republican leaders opposed the ballot measure, saying it could invite voter fraud. They pointed out that the General Assembly could pass a law that allowed voters to cast ballots anywhere in the state and without showing identification. Some Republicans also say that the legislature could unfairly pack early voting booths into liberal areas.

But those arguments didn't convince many who stood in line for more than two hours in West Baltimore waiting to vote. "It will eliminate some of this," said Annie Johnson, 63, gesturing at the hundreds of people in front of her.

Another woman in line, Eddette Rice, 51, said she would vote for the measure because she works on weekdays and often can't make it to the polls. "Normally, I wouldn't be able to vote," she said. This year she got the day off.

Not everyone shared her view. Marty Hayes, 58, who owns a small electronics business in Elkridge, opposed the ballot measure. "There's too much opportunity for fraud," he said.

Others said they feared that a ballot cast early wouldn't really be counted by election officials. "I just don't trust them," said Elbert Street, 73, who waited in line for four hours at the Augsburg Lutheran Village Retirement Community in Lochearn in Baltimore County.

This year, early voting drew national attention in states like Florida, where long lines before Election Day caused the governor to extend poll hours. Of that state's 10.7 million registered voters, 2.6 million went early, according to the secretary of state's Web site. In Georgia, another early voting state, 2 million cast votes before yesterday.

James Hicks, a researcher with the Early Voting Information Center, projected that 30 percent of all ballots nationally would be cast early.

In Maryland, the legislature passed an early-voting measure in 2005 and again in 2006. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed both measures, and Democrats in the General Assembly voted to override him both times.

But those laws faced a legal challenge before anyone cast an early ballot. Joan Capozzi of the Queen Anne's County Republican Central Committee sued the state Board of Elections, arguing that Election Day is clearly defined in the Maryland Constitution as the "Tuesday next after the first Monday in November."

The state's highest court agreed. The decision also tightened the circumstances under which a voter can cast an absentee ballot. Election officials began requiring absentee voters to sign an oath pledging that they would be unable to vote in person on Election Day.

But yesterday's change to the constitution means that the General Assembly could pass a law allowing voters to use absentee ballots without offering an excuse.

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