Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s drive to stop early voting this year advanced on two fronts yesterday, pushing the debate into uncharted legal territory and deepening the uncertainty about how ballots will be cast this fall.
Republican activists met a preliminary deadline yesterday to put a referendum on the issue on the November ballot, and the state budget department threatened to withhold funds for new equipment that elections officials say is crucial to administer the new voting laws.
The head of Marylanders for Fair Elections, a new group backed by the Ehrlich re-election campaign, turned in more than 20,000 signatures to the Maryland secretary of state's office yesterday opposing two early voting bills. If all the entries are valid, the submission contains about 3,000 more names than needed to meet the preliminary deadline for referendums to go on the November ballot.
But the attorney general's office has indicated that the petition gatherers might be a year late in their efforts, because the state's initial early voting law - which allows selected polling places to be open five days before the primary and general elections - passed a year ago.
With just over three months to go before the September primary, both political parties are seeking to make a wedge issue out of early voting, which is used in more than 30 states.
Ehrlich and his allies accuse Democrats of recklessly pushing through changes to the state's voting system that invite voter fraud, including early voting and easier access to absentee ballots.
Democrats claim the Republicans' strategy amounts to vote suppression.
Both sides expect the outcome could tip the balance in a close race for governor and other offices, and the issue could well end up in court as the parties fight it out over legal gray areas such as the timing of the petition and sufficiency of signatures.
Adding to the drama is a web of potential conflicts of interest between those involved in deciding what goes on the ballot.
The secretary of state who must approve the wording of referendums, Mary Kane, is married to the state Republican Party chairman, John Kane.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose staff has issued opinions on the timing of petition drives, is the father-in-law of one of the leading candidates to oppose the governor - Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
And the state elections administrator, who must oversee the certification of the signatures, sued the state two years ago to keep her job after Ehrlich appointees to the Elections Board tried to fire her.
The Ehrlich-backed Fair Elections group now has a month to collect the remaining 32,000 signatures needed to place the issue on the ballot.
Thomas Roskelly, the group's director, said yesterday that Marylanders of all political persuasions are outraged that early voting has been implemented without more safeguards against fraud and are eager to sign.
"What we're looking for is every single voter to cast a legal ballot. That's what Democrats want, that's what Republicans want, that's what independents want," Roskelly said. "Well, that's not the way it is."
The legality of the Republicans' petition drive on one of the bills is uncertain, however.
The constitution allows citizens to petition laws to referendum by collecting signatures in the months after a bill passes. But the initial law establishing early voting was approved in spring 2005. Ehrlich vetoed it, and the legislature overrode him in January.
In response to questions about a vetoed bill last year, Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch said signatures would have to be gathered immediately after the legislative session when the bill was initially passed, not when the veto is overridden.
Zarnoch said yesterday that the constitution does not directly address such a scenario, and it appears never to have come up in the more than 90 years since Marylanders got the right to petition bills to referendum.
But, he said, the interpretation he offered is the one that most closely fits with the intent of the referendum article.
The issue "could very well" end up in court, he said: "There's no perfect fit here. This is something where if you really thought about it, you might do differently, but we've got to live with what's there."
The petition signatures now go to local boards of election for certification. Signatures must come from individual registered voters and must be accompanied by their correct addresses. The local boards have 20 days to certify the signatures.
The roughly 3,000 extra signatures that petition backers turned in yesterday might not offer much of a cushion. In the last successful attempt to petition a state law to referendum - a 2000 fight over a Baltimore County condemnation ordinance - election judges disqualified about 19 percent of the initial batch of signatures that the measure's opponents turned in. That attrition rate would push the early voting petitions below the legal threshold.
State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone said that if too many signatures submitted yesterday are found to be invalid, the petition drive would automatically fail. But Roskelly said he believes that if the number of certified signatures is below the one-third threshold, petitioners would simply have to collect more before the final deadline at the end of the month.
Ehrlich has also attacked early voting by threatening to withhold funding for new technology to administer the pre-Election Day balloting.
The state Board of Elections met one of the Ehrlich administration's key demands yesterday when it officially certified the new equipment - a system for electronically checking off the names of voters at the polls known as "e-poll books."
The board also voted to begin the process of spending what will ultimately be about $17 million on the poll books, to the relief of local elections officials who say they are quickly falling behind in planning for a primary election that is just three months away.
"I'm ready to move forward," said Barbara Fisher, elections administrator of Anne Arundel County.
The e-poll books - manufactured by Diebold, the same company that provides Maryland's electronic voting machines - are touch-screen computers that effectively replace the printed voter lists that election judges consult before giving voters their ballots.
At the center of the controversy over the poll books is the question of whether they will be networked to each other. Elections officials said yesterday that they will be linked to other machines in the same county for early voting - when the potential for casting multiple votes is greatest - but not on Election Day.
In a Tuesday letter to Lamone, state budget secretary Cecilia Januszkiewicz said her office would not release money to buy the poll books until it has a written description of the "real-time capabilities" of the devices. Januszkiewicz also insisted on formal notice that they had been certified.
Lamone said she is working on a response to the secretary's concerns. Lamone's deputy, Ross Goldstein, said there has been "confusion" and a "disagreement" over certification and real-time issues, but he believes elections officials have resolved them.
State elections officials say they hope to place the purchase of the poll books on the agenda of Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting - where Ehrlich would have a chance to voice his concerns directly.
Ehrlich policy director Joseph M. Getty said he believes "the governor is reluctant to approve them" but said he understands that local elections officials could be in a bind if the poll books aren't in their hands soon.
State elections board chairman Gilles W. Burger, who was out of the country yesterday, said in an interview last week that the plan for the e-poll books will provide sufficient security because it will stop people from casting multiple ballots on the electronic voting machines.
The limited networking will stop people from voting multiple times on the machines in their home counties, and people who try to vote early outside their home county will be given paper provisional ballots, which will be counted after the election only if no record exists of them voting elsewhere, Burger said.
"I am satisfied with the explanation of the process and the plan that is going to be used as it is," he said.