Opponents of allowing selected polling stations to open five days before Election Day reached a milestone in their drive to overturn the measure yesterday, while Democrats intensified their rhetoric in support of the plan.
The State Board of Elections confirmed yesterday that Marylanders for Fair Elections, a volunteer group backed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election campaign, collected more than the 17,062 valid signatures necessary to meet a first deadline in a petition drive against early-voting procedures adopted by the General Assembly. Lawmakers passed early-voting bills in each of the past two years, overturning vetoes by the governor both times.
The group faces a series of legal obstacles, however, before voters can register their opinions in a referendum.
The state elections administrator has ruled that the challenge to one of two early-voting bills being questioned - the initial legislation passed in 2005 authorizing the practice - does not meet the timing requirements in the state constitution. To get the matter on the ballot, petition organizers would have to win in court.
Early voting is turning into one of the first skirmishes in the fall election campaign. Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican executive in a generation, charges Democrats with making irresponsible changes to voting laws in hopes of stacking the odds against his re-election. Democrats say early voting is needed to increase voter participation. They counter that Ehrlich is trying to sabotage confidence in the voting system to hold down turnout and bolster his cause in a state where Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in party registration.
The state Democratic Party held its second event yesterday to rally support for early voting in as many months, this time enlisting the support of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County.
"Who can be against allowing more people to participate in the democratic process?" Van Hollen said. "What are they afraid of?"
Mikulski said early voting is essential for nurses, firefighters, police officers and others who often must work long and unpredictable shifts that sometimes prevent them from voting on Election Day. People with long commutes can get left out, too, she said.
Multiday voting is used in more than 30 states and was part of recent Iraqi elections, Mikulski said. "If you can have it in Baghdad, you can have it in Baltimore," she said.
Those backing the petition drive say they don't necessarily object to early voting, but that Democrats have tried to implement it too quickly and without adequate safeguards.
Organizers have been gathering signatures against the two bills at fairs, festivals and shopping malls. State elections officials said yesterday that the organizers collected enough valid signatures to meet a preliminary deadline on one bill passed this year that, among other things, listed the locations of early voting precincts in Baltimore and other large jurisdictions.
For the earlier, more substantive bill, success on the petition challenge looked all but certain last night. The petitioners were about 200 signatures short, with some counties - including Anne Arundel, where the petition drive is headquartered - yet to report.
"I am very optimistic," said Thomas Roskelly, the head of the fair elections group. "People are really hustling out there, and the returns are pretty good."
The group has until June 30 to turn in about 34,000 more signatures on each bill to put them before voters in the fall and has high-profile help to meet the goal.
"The only way to stop this underhanded effort to 'fix' the election is to collect enough signatures to get this referendum on the ballot," Ehrlich said in a mailing from Marylanders for Fair Elections that included petition forms.
Elections officials say the timetable for implementing early voting is tight, but members of the elections board, including Republican appointees, have signed off on a plan to use new technology they say will prevent people from voting more than once.
Referendums are rare in Maryland and difficult to get on the ballot. Because the process is seldom used, the law governing referendums has not been well-defined in key areas that could complicate the petition effort.
The constitution spells out the timing for petition drives but says nothing about when challenges should occur for bills that have been vetoed and overridden.
An assistant attorney general wrote an advice letter about an unrelated bill last year saying that in such a situation, a petition drive would have to take place immediately after the measure initially passed. In this case, that would mean the petition drive on the main early-voting bill is a year too late.
Under that interpretation, petitioners would have had to bring their challenge to the law after it had been vetoed but before they knew if it would be overridden.
State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone wrote to the petitioners this year that the challenge to the original early-voting bill wasn't timely. But she said the petition drive could continue because her decision was subject to review in the courts.
If the timing of that petition is ruled valid, another question would remain: Would the original early-voting statute stay in effect until after this election? In other words, would Marylanders get to vote early on whether they should vote early?
Kevin Enright, a spokesman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said early voting will be in effect for this election. But that question has never been decided in court.
Enright said the next move legally is up to the petitioners, who would have to challenge the Board of Elections' decision about the timeliness of their petition in court.
Elections Board Chairman Gilles W. Burger said he's in no position to second-guess the attorney general, but he said the law wouldn't make much sense if it means what Curran's office says it does.
"It's not fair if that indeed is the case," Burger said. "What's the point of putting a petition together on a bill that got vetoed?"
Roskelly, who is not an attorney, said his interpretation of the constitution - and that of lawyers he's talked to - differs from that of the attorney general. But he said he is focused on gathering the signatures and will worry about the legality of the petition drive when that's done.
"Then we'll let the attorneys do their thing," he said.