Early voting starts Saturday, runs 6 days

Maryland offers shorter period than many states

October 26, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Starting Saturday, Marylanders can go to the polls and cast their votes for president and other matters on this fall's ballot.

But those who wish to enter the voting booth before Election Day shouldn't wait too long. Maryland's early-voting period runs only through Thursday, a six-day window that is one of the shortest in the country and that could be cut even shorter by Hurricane Sandy. After that, voters will need to wait until Nov. 6.

The State Board of Elections is anticipating that as many as 20 percent of Maryland voters will join millions of their fellow Americans in the increasingly popular practice of casting their ballots in person before Election Day.

Other Marylanders who like to get a jump on things have been voting by mail, using absentee ballots, since Sept. 21. That's the same day the nation's earliest in-person early voting began, in Idaho and South Dakota.

Maryland officials say they've kept early voting short here largely because of budget concerns. For the same reason, though they encourage early voting, election officials aren't waging an outreach campaign.

"There's no funds to do that," said Ross Goldstein, deputy director of the State Board of Elections. "The parties are out there and starting to incorporate it into their get-out-the-vote strategy."

Some voters may choose early voting as a strategy for avoiding lines on Election Day, when a long list of state and local ballot questions could slow the process.

"It's a longer ballot, so people will take longer to vote," Goldstein said.

The campaign committees on both sides of the most hotly contested ballot issues — Question 6 on same-sex marriage and Question 7 on expanded gambling — are gearing up efforts to persuade their supporters to vote early.

Proponents of the Dream Act, the measure that would allow in-state college tuition for some children of illegal immigrants, also are active. Supporters are planning a march and rally Saturday in Silver Spring specifically to encourage early voting. Spokeswoman Kristin Ford said supporters will march from a church to an early-voting center and cast ballots en masse.

Severe weather could disrupt early voting. Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an executive order Friday, declaring a state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the East Coast in the next few days. Under the law, the state can now make emergency changes to the early-voting schedule and locations.

State officials are "actively monitoring weather developments in order to determine whether changes to the early voting schedule may be necessary to protect public safety," the governor's office said in a statement.

Early voting — as distinguished from absentee voting — was introduced in Maryland for the 2010 gubernatorial election after a long political and legal struggle. That year, early votes accounted for 6.3 percent of the state's votes in the general election. Early voting was also permitted during this spring's primary.

Maryland Democrats have long championed early voting, while Republicans have been cool to the idea. In 2006, when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, Democrats passed early voting by overriding his veto. But the law was struck down by the Court of Appeals, which said an amendment to the Maryland Constitution was necessary. Voters approved that in 2008.

The law allows populous jurisdictions, such as Baltimore and Baltimore County, to open as many as five early voting sites. Smaller counties have just one.

While Maryland is a solidly Democratic state, heavily Republican Oklahoma is the only early-voting state with a shorter time period. Early in-person voting started before Maryland in almost 30 other states.

Outside Maryland, the approaches to early voting are all over the board. Some heavily blue states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island don't open their polls until Election Day, while California allows in-person voting almost a month before the election. Some deeply red states such as Mississippi don't allow early voting at all, while others allow it for periods of up to seven weeks.

Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon, said early voting wasn't a partisan issue at the time most states adopted such laws. In many states, he said, its adoption has been driven by elections officials of both parties.

"Clerks generally like this because it reduces pressure on Election Day — as long as the funding is there," he said.

Gronke said early voting has won wide acceptance in the South and West but has run into resistance in the more tradition-minded Northeast. "It seems more geographic than partisan," he said.

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