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News Opinion Editorial

Voting early and easily

Expanding the opportunity for qualified residents to vote in an election is seldom, if ever, a bad thing, so Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to expand early voting and seek same-day registration in Maryland is a welcome development. Too bad that Republicans in Annapolis are already lining up against the measures on purely partisan grounds.

One of the more notable features of the 2012 General Election was the high early-voter turnout in Maryland. Some people waited for hours, particularly in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, to cast a ballot before Election Day. Altogether, more than 430,000 Marylanders took advantage of early voting (about 16 percent of the total votes cast) despite Hurricane Sandy and the loss of one early voting day (two were actually canceled, but an additional day was added).

Governor O'Malley has proposed that more days of early voting be added — three days in the general election of a presidential election year and two days in all other elections — and that more early voting centers be established, chiefly in the suburban counties. Rural counties, where early voting was not so popular, and Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County would be unaffected. Frederick, Harford, Howard, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties would be required to open two to three more centers, depending on the number of voters living there.

We would quibble with some of the specifics. Better to leave some discretion about the number of early voting centers to local election boards that have a much better feel for when they are necessary. State primary elections, for instance, don't usually cause the kind of high turnout that would justify the expense of additional centers. If the number of centers is defined by statute, there won't be any flexibility whatsoever. They would merely be assigned according to population under the governor's plan — one early voting center for every 62,000 voters. That's fair (apolitical even), but it's not especially efficient or cost-effective.

The more controversial proposal from Mr. O'Malley is same-day voter registration. Under his plan, an unregistered Maryland resident (or one who had changed address since he or she last registered) could show up during the early voting period with suitable identification and proof of residency and register to vote, and then vote right then and there. It would not apply on Election Day, when so many more polling places are open and the training and paperwork burden for poll workers would be far more significant.

Some form of this is already done in at least eight states (including those that have had it since the 1970s) and is getting a second look in states seeking to increase voter turnout. Connecticut will be exercising same-day registration for the first time this year.

Republicans often claim to oppose the measure on the same grounds they oppose early voting generally — that it increases the opportunity for fraud. But they haven't been effective in making the case for increased fraud. In Wisconsin, for example, even Republican Gov. Scott Walker has sided with Democrats in opposing legislation to end Election Day voter registration.

The standard of proof for registration isn't changed by the O'Malley proposal, so it's difficult to see how it could possibly increase voter fraud (if there is much in the first place). It's far easier to see how it might increase voter turnout: Those who failed to meet traditional registration deadlines would now get a chance to cast their ballots, if they are willing to bring suitable identification.

The better beef for Republicans is that the governor's proposal doesn't allow same-day change of party affiliation. We would support giving voters a chance to declare party affiliation on the same day they vote. As much as Democrats fear Republicans would re-register as Democrats in primaries to do mischief, we would counter that failing to vote in a Democratic primary in heavily Democratic places like Baltimore means non-Democrats are locked out of participating in the election in a meaningful way. Same-day registration could address that inequity.

Meanwhile, Mr. O'Malley seems to have taken a cue from Republicans and their recent efforts to streamline the voter petition process. His third election reform bill would allow a voter to apply for an absentee ballot by using an online application from the Maryland State Board of Elections that can be printed out, signed and returned by mail.

That kind of convenience is exactly how opponents were able to petition several measures to a referendum ballot last year, including Maryland's same-sex marriage law and Dream Act. Making it easier to apply for an absentee ballot would seem to be an even more commendable goal if it increases voter turnout.

GOP leaders may complain that the proposals are more likely to help Democrats, but that's merely an admission that their candidates and causes depend on low voter turnout. That's why various forms of voter suppression often seem to work for them — but isn't it always better for an election to reflect the wishes of the true majority?

From a tactical standpoint, increasing voter turnout may serve Mr. O'Malley politically, but it also happens to serve Maryland, and that's why the General Assembly should ultimately approve these measures.

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