Legislative leaders are pledging to make voting issues a priority when the General Assembly convenes next month, with members working on a constitutional amendment to allow multiple days of early voting and a solution to alleged security flaws in Maryland's electronic touch-screen equipment.
The push comes after years of tension surrounding the management of the state's elections, numerous federal- and state-mandated changes and distrust among voters after a disastrous September primary, which led to the highest-ever use of absentee ballots in the November general election.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Assembly leaders presented plans to Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley on Monday and decided that one of the first bills to move forward during the 90-day session would be the constitutional amendment permitting five days of early voting.
Such an amendment is necessary after the state's highest court said in a decision released this month that the Maryland Constitution clearly requires that elections be held on one day and votes be cast in home precincts. The ruling, however, does not apply to absentee voting.
"The court was overly zealous in its opinion," Miller said. "They read things into the constitution that were not there. We're going to amend the constitution and ask voters to give themselves the same rights that have been given to voters in 30 other states."
A constitutional amendment requires the approval of three-fifths of both legislative chambers and is not subject to a gubernatorial veto. The change would then be put on the 2008 ballot for voters to decide.
This year, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly overrode vetoes by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of two early-voting bills with more than three-fifths support in both houses. The legislature's efforts were stymied when three Ehrlich allies sued and the courts ruled in their favor.
Democrats have promoted early voting as an added convenience for voters. But Republicans counter that it's a political ploy to benefit the majority party in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.
With an even greater legislative edge for Democrats after the general election, chances of passage are high. Democrats control more than three-fifths of each chamber.
"There is a general consensus to move forward with early voting," said Rick Abbruzzese, transition spokesman for O'Malley. "The issue has been studied. We know what needs to be done and how to get there."
The question of what technology the state deploys to count ballots, however, is going to require more study, Miller said.
O'Malley has formed a working group to devise options for the state. Former Secretary of State John T. Willis is leading the effort, which is expected to issue its findings in late January, Abbruzzese said.
Some have suggested election officials ask voting machine manufacturer Diebold Election Systems Inc. to attach a printer to the state's machines, which would create a paper record of votes and enable an independent recount. Diebold, however, does not have a product ready -- only a printer prototype, company spokesman Mark Radke said.
"It has not gone any further because a printer requirement has not become law in Maryland," he said. "We would be glad to work with the state to develop that printer."
Miller suggested that the election officials could negotiate with Diebold to replace the state's machines with a newer model already equipped with a printer. He would like the state to be able to purchase new equipment at a discount, he said.
State budget officials estimate that when Diebold's contract with the state expires, the state will have paid the Texas-based company $106 million.
Radke also suggested upgrading to the newer model, pointing out that it is used in other states.
Concerns about the built-in printers, however, abound, including recent evidence from Cuyahoga County, Ohio, that they jam, creating an unreliable back-up for close contests. The paper print-outs also slow the voting process, meaning the state would have to purchase more machines to avoid long lines.
Doing nothing, however, could result in the state running afoul of pending congressional and federal agency mandates. Two Democrats, U.S. Rep. Rush D. Holt of New Jersey and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, plan to introduce legislation in the next Congress requiring such paper trails.
The House bill would include $150 million to help states and municipalities, including Maryland, to upgrade their equipment, said Matt Dennis, a spokesman for Holt. A decision on funding in the Senate bill has not been made, said Howard Gantman, incoming staff director for the Senate Rules Committee.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, said that a return to paper ballots that are tallied by optical scanners would be the cheapest way to meet potential mandates. A Bobo bill to use optical-scan equipment unanimously passed the House of Delegates this year, but died in the Senate.
Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party, said that she was pleased to see Senate leadership "finally" looking into this issue.
"They weren't so concerned prior to the election," she said, referring to widespread problems in the September primary that forced some people to vote on scrap pieces of paper when supplies ran low and election judges didn't show up.
Abbruzzese said that cost might be a key factor and that the governor-elect would wait for recommendations from his working group before making a decision.
"All options are on the table," he said.