Maryland's highest court rejected yesterday a Republican-backed challenge to the state's early-voting law, ending hopes of getting the issue on the ballot as a referendum and greatly increasing the likelihood that voters will have an additional five days to get to the polls this fall.
The Maryland Court of Appeals issued a brief order yesterday afternoon, a few hours after hearing oral arguments, and said it would explain its decision in a later opinion.
The decision lets stand a ruling by the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court that a missed deadline by supporters of the proposed referendum doomed its chances.
"This is a relief because, at this point, getting any litigation on this issue out of the way is a good thing," said Kathryn Rowe, an assistant attorney general.
However, it does not mean the end of legal challenges against two early-voting provisions passed by the General Assembly since last year.
Two Baltimore attorneys with close ties to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are challenging the constitutionality of early voting in Queen Anne's County Circuit Court. The state has requested that the venue be changed to Anne Arundel County, and a hearing on that request is scheduled for tomorrow.
"This is definitely a win for the Democratic majority in the General Assembly, but it's a temporary win," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "We won't know the answer to the full question until the constitutional issue is heard and decided."
The idea of allowing voters to go to the polls five days early has been mired in dispute in Maryland because opponents, including Ehrlich, contend that the state's approach and technology invite fraud. The fact that the state's electronic machines do not allow people to later recount votes by hand is one of their primary concerns.
Democrats counter that the additional leeway affords convenience to busy voters and is secure. Human error in hand-counts, they argue, is what embarrassed Florida during the 2000 election.
The politics of it, however, is that Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the state, and making it easier to vote could tip elections in the Democrats' favor.
However, James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, argues that those fears are unfounded, calling the opposition "a waste of time."
"Early voting doesn't move nonvoters into the electorate," he said. "The reason why is because there are other reasons for not voting aside from convenience, including motivation and interest, and early voting doesn't raise the level of interest."
Yesterday's hearing focused on the first of the two early-voting laws, which established the practice in Maryland.
The second law set the times and locations of the early-voting sites - an important issue that Gimpel deemed worthy of a fight.
Enough signatures were obtained in a separate petition drive on this second issue for the matter to go before voters in November. If voters strike down this second law, Rowe said, it's unclear what the effect will be.
The case before the Court of Appeals yesterday didn't focus on the merits, legality, time or place of early voting. Rather, the case addressed the legal minutiae surrounding whether Marylanders for Fair Elections, a group trying to block the new laws, submitted enough valid signatures within the legal time frame for petitioning a law to referendum.
After being notified of the failure to obtain those signatures, the state argued that the group did not file a request for judicial review of their petition in time.
The group's leader, Thomas Roskelly, was on vacation when the notice was mailed and his fax machine did not have paper in it, attorneys for the state and Roskelly said yesterday.
Judge Alan M. Wilner asked Roskelly's attorney whether the state's elections administrator had "to go around and find where [Roskelly] was on vacation?"
Judge Dale R. Cathell said that requiring elections officials to ensure that their notices were received could lead to "absurd results."
Roskelly's attorney, Jay West, argued that state elections officials had his client's cell phone number, had called him before and all they needed to do was call him in this instance. If that had happened, the deadline would have been met, he said.