Vote early, not often

Our view: Maryland arriving late at the early voting party, with too few polling places and little time to vote

August 29, 2010

Change can come slowly, at times, to the Land of Pleasant Living. Case in point: new ways of voting.

Starting this week, Marylanders can avoid long lines on Election Day by casting their ballots days in advance at early-voting locations around the state. Or if they prefer, they can mail in an absentee ballot. No excuses necessary.

This newspaper has long advocated in favor of such common-sense changes, and we're pleased to see Maryland finally beginning to catch up. But much more could still be done to make it easier for citizens to exercise their right to vote.

Most other states already provide early voting. Maryland's new system will permit voting for six days in advance of the Sept. 14 primary (from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., starting this Friday and continuing through Thursday, Sept. 9, with no voting on the intervening Sunday) and similarly before the Nov. 2 general election. Other states make it even easier. They extend early voting for up to 45 days in advance of elections and in some cases allow Sunday voting.

A more serious flaw in the new system is the relative scarcity of early voting sites. That will mean long drives or transit rides for many voters, defeating the purpose of making voting less time-consuming. Most counties have only one early-voting location. The city of Baltimore has five, as do Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County. That's a far cry from other states, where a single county may provide dozens of early-voting locations. Blame the Maryland legislature, which dictated the limits.

There are other, related improvements that Maryland might consider adopting. Some states offer curbside voting, including at early voting sites, for anyone who has difficulty walking or is unable to stand for a long period of time. Online voter registration, available in some states, could complement — and simplify — the current, cumbersome paper process.

Early voting is a step forward for Marylanders, but it is already being eclipsed by mail-in voting elsewhere. Millions of Americans now avoid the trip to the polling place entirely and instead fill out their ballots at home. In 11 states, more than half the total vote in the 2008 election was cast by mail, and those numbers will only grow.

In Maryland, the mail-in option is available this year to any voter. Excuses are no longer necessary to request an absentee ballot, like being sick or out of town on Election Day. Voters can even download absentee ballots on their home computers, a convenience that deserves praise, though the state elections board could do a better job of promoting the option.

Again, Maryland still has further to go in eliminating the headaches and expense of Election Day. Permanent vote-by-mail lists have become enormously popular in California and Colorado, and for good reason. Registered voters who sign up for the list automatically receive a mail-in ballot for every election (anyone who fails to vote in two consecutive statewide elections must reapply in California; in Colorado, voters are automatically removed from the permanent list if their ballot is returned as undeliverable).

Oregon has taken the idea to its logical conclusion. Its elections have been conducted entirely by mail for the past 10 years, and neighboring Washington state has moved to follow suit. In most of America, many people fail to vote simply because they don't know where to vote. That problem no longer exists in the Pacific Northwest. There are no more polling places — and no taxpayer expense for staffing them.

In Maryland, past opposition to removing voting barriers has come disproportionately, if predictably, from Republicans, who sometimes seem unable to throw away their old voter-supression playbook. In 2005, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed legislation to institute no-excuse absentee voting, claiming it would be "an invitation to greater voter fraud." (

In other states, the explosion of mail-in voting has produced no evidence of increased voter fraud. And Maryland Republicans might want to check out a study by the respected, nonpartisan Field Research Corp. It found that the 5.7 million California voters who cast their ballots by mail in the 2008 election were more likely to be white, conservative and Republican than those who trudged to local polling places.

Experience in other states demonstrates that several elections are needed for voting reforms to catch on. Maryland's baby steps along an increasingly well-trod road elsewhere around the country — which have come, we should note, after years of struggle at the legislature in Annapolis and in courtrooms — may not make much of an impact in this year's election. But they're a start.

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