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The governor's anti-democratic scare tactics


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. spends a remarkable amount of time attacking Maryland's election laws, particularly a new one that allows voting five days before the official Election Day.

Maybe it's diversionary - because he failed to achieve any real utility rate relief for consumers.

Maybe it's because he doesn't have a party primary and needs something to stay involved until the general election.

Maybe he really thinks there's an organized effort afoot to steal the election. Evidence, if any, is lacking.

Whatever the reason, the governor is dragging Maryland into the same sordid league as Florida, Georgia and other states that have engineered a series of remarkably anti-democratic voter suppression measures.

Mr. Ehrlich says the early voting law that was passed over his veto is an invitation to fraud. Democrats say it's an invitation to participation. Of course, there is a political element here: There are more Democrats, so more voting will help them. But more than 30 other states, including some with Republican governors, have adopted early voting without significant incident.

Mr. Ehrlich's fears remain undiminished. He is supporting an effort to have early voting outlawed by referendum. If the voters agree with him, the ban would apply in subsequent elections, not the one in November.

One of the sponsors of the new voting law, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, equates Mr. Ehrlich's alarums with recklessly crying fire in a crowded theater. Unfortunately, the theater of democracy - the polling place - is not nearly as crowded as it should be. Mr. Ehrlich's constant invoking of a fraud theme can have the effect of thinning the crowd even further.

Democrats charge Mr. Ehrlich with frightening people - discouraging their participation as a campaign tactic. He fears a higher turnout means more Democrats lining up to vote.

The governor's assault on the voting process goes further. Last week, he and his budget secretary suggested money for important election equipment might not be made available.

That threat reminds Marylanders that the governor has waged a long struggle with the state's elections administrator, Linda H. Lamone. Unsuccessful so far at having her removed, Mr. Ehrlich now seems willing to jeopardize her ability to do her job, which is managing a smooth and professionally run election.

It seems as if the governor is warning against a flawed election on one hand and creating Election Day problems on the other.

He may feel he needs this sort of distraction if he's to regain the governor's mansion for another four years.

Some of the usual election-year indicators are not exactly aligned in Mr. Ehrlich's favor. He's likely to have plenty of money for his campaign, but it might not matter if there's a Democratic sweep-in prospect, as some believe.

The point was made with unusual clarity Wednesday evening when President Bush was in town to help Republicans raise campaign funds. Mr. Ehrlich was virtually the only GOP candidate on hand to greet him. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate, didn't show up to thank the president of the United States, one of the men most responsible for his candidacy. He was at another fundraiser in Las Vegas.

At nearly the same time, Mr. Ehrlich's "rate stabilization" plan in the explosive utility issue was repudiated by a Circuit Court judge in Baltimore. Mayor Martin O'Malley, who could be Mr. Ehrlich's opponent in the general election, said Baltimore had stepped in because the governor had failed to act.

The city's lawsuit may produce a better, more thorough process for evaluating the power industry's request for high rates - no small improvement. Whether another hearing on the matter will find hidden assets that can lead to lower rates remains to be seen.

But Mr. O'Malley has gained a certain ascendancy in this still-evolving drama. An approach that leads to fairness and due process - absent from the process so far, the judge said - is important.

Mr. Ehrlich's effort to ease the rate increase single-handedly was a bust. His plan spread out the pain of a 72 percent rate increase but eased it only slightly, if at all. No wonder he's not eager to see more voting.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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