NBC News gets it wrong again with image of social unrest in Baltimore

Before slots, another question: Early voting?

The ballot you'll receive on Nov. 4 – or earlier, if you are voting absentee – is chock full of intriguing choices.

There's Barack Obama versus John McCain for president. There's Andy Harris against Frank Kratovil if you vote in the 1st District congressional race. There's slots. Finally you get to decide whether you are for more gambling, or against it.

Then there's a constitutional amendment that has received virtually no attention so far.

The slots referendum is actually the second statewide ballot question. The first is whether to allow early voting in Maryland.

Lawmakers in 2005 passed an early voting system, and reinstated it after a veto by then Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Opponents sued, and in 2006 the state's highest court ruled that the plan was unconstitutional. The constitution now reads that election day shall take place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and that eligible voters must vote in the ward or district in which they preside.

The Democratic majority in the state General Assembly wants to change that to allow for an early voting period. If voters approve, elections officials will establish a 10-day period within two weeks of Election Day to let registered voters record their choices. By changing the constitution, the amendment would alleviate concerns raised by the Court of Appeals.

The benefits and costs of early voting have been distorted by partisan politics.

Early voting is a convenience for people who work odd-hour shifts or commute long distances, Democrats argue.

Republicans in Maryland are opposed to the initiative. They say it is unnecessary, and opens the door to fraud. Blair Lee IV, a columnist and longtime political observer, says the plan is expensive, and details – such as when and where the early-opening polls will be – haven't been well-thought out.

UMBC political scientist Thomas F. Schaller is a critic of early voting, arguing that campaigns matter and events change, and voters might be locking in decisions with incomplete information through early voting.

Fifteen states allowed early voting in 2006, legislative researchers said. With interest in this year's election running exceptionally high, and no organized campaign against Question 1, look for the early voting plan to pass and Maryland to be added to the list.

But wait. There's more.

Voters in Baltimore City and Baltimore County will have a lot more decisions to make. The Baltimore ballot runs to 11 pages, City Hall reporter Annie Linskey has found, because it seeks voter approval for a series of loans to cultural institutions, from the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center to the Walters art museum and Everyman Theater.

In Baltimore County, voters will decide of a range of capital projects, from community colleges to land preservation. For a full list of ballot questions, click here.

So for many of you, you might be spending a little bit more time inside the voting booth than you expected.

David Nitkin

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