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Editorial: Plan for early voting expansion

Early voting has grown increasingly popular in Maryland since the state began offering it in 2010. About 7.5 percent of eligible Maryland voters cast ballots during the eight-day early voting period ahead of the primary in April, the most ever for a primary. Nearly 5 percent of eligible active voters in Carroll, about 5,000 people, did so.

Election officials expect to see the highest turnout ever in early voting for the presidential election this fall. We wonder how many people, particularly those in the densely populated southern end of Carroll County, might not vote because there is only one early voting center, located in Westminster.

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Carroll County will be the largest jurisdiction in the state of Maryland to offer just a single early voting center during the eight days this fall, from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3. Carroll's one early voting center per 114,000 voters puts it at more than double the statewide average of one center per 45,294 voters, according to data from the State Board of Elections.

Early voting empowers people to get to the polls and have their voice heard at the ballot box because of the convenience it offers. It has become increasingly popular with people who work, especially those who travel to jobs outside the county; people with standing medical appointments and those with disabilities who might not be able to get to their polling place or want to deal with large crowds on Election Day. Absentee ballots are an option, sure, but not nearly as convenient.

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Every jurisdiction in Maryland must provide at least one early voting center, those with more than 125,000 voters but fewer than 300,000 must offer three, and that increases to five or eight based on registered voters. But many counties, including Charles, Garrett and Queen Anne's offer two early voting sites, even though their voting populations are smaller than Carroll's. Legislation passed in the General Assembly in 2012 that would allow Carroll to have a second early voting site, although it is not required.

Carroll County is the only jurisdiction among the top 10 in Maryland in voting population to offer just one early voting center.

During the budget sessions, the Board of County Commissioners passed on a second site in Eldersburg because of the costs, about $4,000 to rent the space, plus paying election judges and leasing additional equipment from the state, according to county Election Director Katherine Berry. It is likely too late now to make a change for 2016, but county officials soon may not have a choice and should start preparing for that reality.

Berry told us an estimated 118,000 are registered to vote in Carroll, putting the county just 7,000 away from the threshold to add two additional early voting centers as required by state law. The county would be wise to prepare financially for three voting centers in 2018, and almost certainly by 2020. But even if the threshold isn't met in two years, it would make sense to add another early voting center to allow election officials to better prepare and ease into the idea of inevitably running three sites down the road.

A second center located in the Eldersburg area makes the most sense considering it is a population center of more than 30,000 and many people who live there commute outside the county to work. To get to Westminster to cast an early ballot, it's a 30-plus mile round trip, likely in the opposite direction of where they are employed.

Early voting is certainly a privilege, not a right, but one the county should nevertheless be interested in improving access to.

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