A Republican-led petition drive to thwart Maryland's early-voting provisions hit a major snag yesterday when the state Board of Elections said the effort fell 138 signatures short of moving forward.
The news was a blow to Marylanders for Fair Elections, a volunteer group backed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who both complain that the legislature hastily enacted early voting without safeguards to prevent voter fraud. Democrats considered it a victory, calling the drive a ploy to suppress voter turnout.
The volunteer group is seeking to overturn two bills adopted by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly that allow some polling sites around the state to open five days before Election Day and name the locations. The group needs 51,185 signatures of registered voters to put the issue on the ballot as a referendum in November. It had to produce the first third of them by May 30.
Opponents of early voting said they were surprised to learn the drive came up short in meeting the first signature threshold. Earlier this week, state elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone had announced the group was close to achieving its goal.
On Monday, the Board of Elections confirmed the group had the required third of the signatures to move forward on the related bill that names early polling sites around the state. The board also informed the group that it was fewer than 200 signatures short of clearing the first threshold on the more sweeping bill, which sanctions early voting. At the time, the board had yet to verify signatures from several counties, including Anne Arundel, where the petition effort was based.
Thomas Roskelly, leader of Marylanders for Fair Elections, criticized the elections board yesterday, saying Lamone, a Democrat, intentionally scuttled the drive. He called for a public recount of the signatures.
"The irony of ironies is, I think she is committing fraud," he said. "She is committing fraud on our efforts to prevent fraud. How ironic is this? This, as far as I'm concerned, is an example of the politicization of the electoral process in this state."
Maryland voting procedures have been increasingly politicized in recent years. Ehrlich has had a long-brewing feud with Lamone, the elections supervisor, and attempted to remove her two years ago. The Assembly has supported Lamone, who sued the state to keep her job.
Roskelly said the group submitted about 21,000 names, more than the 17,062 needed to move forward with the effort. But officials at the elections board said only 16,924 of the signatures were valid.
Mary Cramer Wagner, director of the voter registration and petitions division for the elections board, said staff in local jurisdictions carefully checked each signature to confirm it represented a registered voter, in addition to verifying other technical requirements.
"I have a real problem with our local election officials constantly being attacked," she said. "They are professionals. You are talking about some people who have been working in this field for 30 years."
Even so, the issue could end up in court over the question of whether petitioners launched the drive within adequate time of the bill's passage.
Yesterday's dispute over the petition drive was the latest skirmish in a political battle over early voting that has Democrats and Republicans accusing each other of using the issue to gain votes. Yesterday, they continued the finger-pointing.
"Ehrlich's mean-spirited campaign to suppress the vote has failed because voters want more flexibility and opportunity to vote," Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said in a written statement. "Ehrlich treated the voters as if they were stupid, but Maryland voters are intelligent and they see through his baseless accusations and scare tactics."
"This is not the end, we will continue to fight for this and we will win," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. "This is an egregious attempt to fix an election by the state Democrats. And they obviously have the full cooperation by the partisan state elections administrator."