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Election proposals heard in Annapolis

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Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration asked lawmakers Thursday to expand the state's early voting program, allow absentee voters to mark their ballots online and offer same-day registration during early voting.

The governor pushed for additional early voting sites, more early voting days and extended hours after many locations saw lines of an hour or more during last fall's election, an O'Malley aide told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Rebecca Mules, the governor's deputy legislative officer, said the idea to move some of the absentee-voting process online arose after the success of online balloting for Maryland utility workers sent to the Northeast to help with Hurricane Sandy cleanup on Election Day.

And allowing voters to register and vote the same day — along with requiring the appropriate technology to execute the program — would increase turnout, Mules said.

Some critics of early voting and other proposals have suggested they can lead to voter fraud, though no one testified in opposition at Thursday's Senate hearing.

About 16 percent of all ballots in the 2012 election were cast at early voting centers, which were first used in Maryland in 2010. O'Malley's proposal would add three voting centers to Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, bringing the number of centers in each to eight.

It would add two each in Frederick and Harford counties. And early voting hours during presidential elections would be expanded to 12 hours per day for eight days.

Disability advocates testified in support of the online absentee voting measure, saying it would allow people with certain disabilities to privately cast a ballot by computer. Today's paper system requires them to find another person to help mark their choices, and the ballots still need to be submitted by mail, not online.

O'Malley's proposal is one of several that officials are pushing to change how Marylanders vote and how the petition process works when voters are dissatisfied with the General Assembly's work.

A plan by state Sen. Jamie Raskin would allow for same-day registration on Election Day. Another proposal, sponsored by Sen. Jennie Forehand, would allow people to vote by mail in special elections, which currently have low turnout. Both lawmakers are Democrats from Montgomery County.

A more controversial bill would make private the names and personal information of anyone who signs a petition to send a state law to referendum.

The proposal comes after three laws were petitioned to the ballot last year, the first time voters were asked to uphold a state law in two decades. Voters ultimately endorsed laws legalizing same-sex marriage, granting in-state tuition to some immigrants and redrawing Maryland's congressional districts.

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs and Del. Neil Parrott, both Republicans, sponsored the bill to exempt petitions from public records laws. Jacobs said that allowing all that personal information to be public in the Internet age invites fraud and identity theft. Parrott said keeping petition information private protects voters from being confronted for their political views the same way voters are protected by casting ballots anonymously.

"Voters have an expectation of privacy," he said.

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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