Six days in September

Our view: Early voting is a success without major glitches or over-hyped fraud, but modest turnout suggests improvements can be made

September 13, 2010

So this is what all the fuss was about? Maryland's first experience with early voting turned out to be an anticlimax on par with the U.S. invasion of Grenada. No problems at the 46 polling places, no signs of widespread fraud and not all that many voters either.

Perhaps the most eventful moment of the six days came last week when early voting's newest disciple, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., cast his ballot and urged others to vote early, too. As governor, Mr. Ehrlich described early voting an invitation to fraud, vetoed legislation authorizing it and then (after the General Assembly overrode his veto) led a failed effort to bring it to voter referendum.

Even so, the Republican wasn't entirely sold on it even as a participant. He described early voting as a "solution in search of a problem." And the low turnout would seem to support his evolving view.

But not so fast. From the start early voting has simply been about improving overall turnout, and what's not known is how many of the 77,288 people who cast ballots in advance of Tuesday's primary election would not have otherwise voted.

Could they have used absentee ballots instead? Absolutely. That certainly would have been cheaper (early voting in the primary and general elections is going to cost the state and local election boards more than $1 million for election judges' wages alone and probably closer to $3.4 million when all the expenses are totaled). But four years ago, the last gubernatorial primary produced only about 27,000 absentee votes, or one-third of the turnout from this year's early voting. (Requests for absentee ballots were also up this year, thanks to a new rule allowing people to vote by mail without providing an excuse for why they can't go to the polls on election day.)

While early voters represented just 2.44 percent of eligible voters, what won't be known until after the primary is whether this is simply a reflection of low voter turnout generally. And there is evidence to support a low turnout theory: Voter registration is down, too, as there are relatively few primary races that are stirring voter interest.

There are other possibilities. The state spent a miniscule $70,000 marketing early voting statewide, and all the scare tactics used against early voting during the Ehrlich years in Annapolis had to at least dampen enthusiasm for it in some quarters.

Perhaps there are elements of early voting that can be tweaked. More polling locations could be opened (46 isn't much considering 1,600 are open for election day voting), the time to vote could be lengthened beyond six days and the effort better publicized. Many Marylanders were no doubt unaware of what early voting involved, and that should change over time.

But make no mistake, there is a problem that early voting has the potential to address. Voter turnout in Baltimore in 2006 was only about 47 percent in the general election. That means the majority of people eligible to vote in the last gubernatorial election stayed home, and that was in a highly contested race. Democracy doesn't work well when a majority does not participate. Evidence from states where early voting is better established suggests it may not radically increase the number of people who cast ballots, but considering the importance of robust participation in the electoral process, anything that makes voting more convenient is a help.

Republicans may see a political advantage in low turnout, but for many working class people or those with infirmities or mobility issues, it's not always convenient to get to the polls on election day. That's the reason most states have adopted early voting and why Maryland ought not abandon its nascent effort quite yet.

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