Early votes might be counted earlier

With the state's first attempt at early voting in a general election set to begin Friday, officials still are working out kinks in the system.

After a trial run in last month's primaries, lawmakers are considering allowing those votes to be counted earlier on Election Day — an idea that has raised red flags among Republican and policy groups concerned that politicians could take advantage of the information.

Even with historically low turnout for the primaries Sept. 14, election judges were overwhelmed with work that night, prompting results from some of the larger areas to trickle in at a slower-than-usual pace.

To speed the process, State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone has drafted new rules for when early votes can be counted. For the primaries, the regulations allowed election judges to begin counting at 2 p.m.; under Lamone's draft, they could start counting at any time on Election Day — theoretically, right after midnight.

Results would be not be reported to the public until after the polls close, but the regulations are silent as to whether vote counts might be released to elected officials — including those who are trying to keep their jobs.

Critics predict that election judges could slip candidates inside information on vote tallies early on Election Day, enabling campaigns to deploy their get-out-the-vote operations more effectively.

"There's the potential for all kinds of political shenanigans to take place," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican. The conservative blog Red Maryland has called on state lawmakers to halt the election board's new plan.

Smigiel is a member of the legislative committee that would need to approve the emergency regulations before they can take effect. But he has called for a public hearing, potentially blocking them until after Election Day.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the Prince George's County Democrat who heads the committee, said Friday he was weighing whether to pull panel members off the campaign trail for a hearing in Annapolis. If he doesn't call a hearing, it appears the new regulations wouldn't take effect.

Ross Goldstein, the deputy administrator for the elections board, said the proposed regulations are intended to fix problems that cropped up during the primaries.

State election officials had hoped to post early voting results exactly when polls closed at 8 p.m., but many local boards failed to submit a required security plan, and therefore were not allowed to start counting those votes until that night.

That left eager lawmakers and election watchers frustrated, continually hitting "refresh" on the Board of Elections website, only to see no new results.

"People obviously really want these results," Goldstein said.

Now the state board wants to impose a security plan on the local boards and require that they submit their early voting counts by 6 p.m. Goldstein said that would give the state board a few hours to "check to make sure we have what we need." He said elections workers would "in no way look" at the tallies.

But James Browning, the Mid-Atlantic director for the nonpartisan government watchdog Common Cause, saw no need to open the system to misuse just to disseminate results a few hours faster.

"The amount of angst over not having those votes as fast as expected shows some elected officials feel they are not in control of the process," he said. "That is not necessarily a bad thing."

Browning said there are legitimate concerns about "the potential for mischief" if more time is added to count the early votes.

"The first fix here should be to count the votes faster and more efficiently during the day," Browning said. "Early voting is new; let's try to make the system work better before making such a big change."



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