Senate passes early voting

The Baltimore Sun

A constitutional amendment to allow early voting in Maryland has passed both houses of the General Assembly, making it likely that voters will decide the issue in the 2008 election.

Fifteen states allow voters to cast standard ballots in person before Election Day, and Democratic lawmakers argue that early voting would offer convenience for working families and enable more people to participate.

"I am going to cast a 'yes' vote for all of the people who stood in line and had to leave and go back to work" before casting a ballot, said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat, during debate yesterday on the Senate floor.

Republican lawmakers say that Democrats are trying to boost their turnout in a state where they have a significant advantage in registration. They also argue that the measure is costly and an unnecessary duplication of a recent law allowing voters to request absentee ballots without a reason.

The state Senate voted 31-16 yesterday to allow citizens to decide whether to allow early voting at a limited number of polling places. The vote came after passage of a similar measure in the House of Delegates last week. The two houses still need to work out their differences over whether to set a time limit on early voting.

Republicans had called for additional restrictions on early voting to prevent fraud, such as requiring voters to cast ballots in their own counties and produce identification at the polls.

"You've heard the saying, 'the devil's in the details,'" said Maryland Republican Party Chairman James Pelura in a statement. "This is worse. There are no details."

Senators narrowly achieved the three-fifths' margin needed to amend the state constitution. Two Democratic senators voted against the proposal because of concerns about election officials' workloads and fraud.

The Senate's version of the legislation restricts early voting to the two weeks before an election, while the House version contains no time limit.

The differences are likely to be reconciled in a conference committee, but either chamber could simply adopt the other's bill. Constitutional amendments are not subject to a gubernatorial veto.

Democratic lawmakers crafted the amendment after the state's highest court struck down parts of the 2005 early voting bill and a 2006 measure outlining the procedures for it.

The court ruled that those laws were invalid because the state constitution limited elections to one day in November and in voters' home districts.

Before the court ruling, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had vetoed both bills, arguing that the practice opened elections to fraud. The Assembly overrode those vetoes.

Concerns about fraud persuaded Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, to oppose the amendment.

"To be able to go anywhere in the state 10 days before an election and walk up and say, 'Hi, I'm here to vote' and give only your name, it's preposterous," he said.

Senate Democrats blocked the addition of an identification and home-county restriction to the constitutional amendment, arguing that the debate was more appropriate for future legislation that would be necessary to spell out how early voting would be run.

"The constitution is about our overall philosophy of government," Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said Monday night. "It's not about regulations and who's going to say what to whom on Election Day."

In the House, leaders also rejected a proposal from Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, to create a four-member, bipartisan commission to choose early voting locations.

Republicans have long accused Democrats of pushing early voting to gain an unfair political advantage, particularly in last year's selection of sites.

A memo included in a Senate bill file two years ago, when the issue first came before the General Assembly, stresses the potential benefits to Democrats.

According to a set of 2005 talking points for "the press, colleagues, or your constituency," early voting is "almost always advantageous to Democrats." In Maryland, Democrats' 2-to-1 edge in registration would "be further amplified by early voting opportunities," according to the memo.

"This doesn't look like something the Democratic Party produced, but we wholeheartedly endorse what it says," party spokesman David Paulson said. "We've always known that if more people voted, then more Democrats would win."

Early and convenient voting is a national trend, and although popular among voters, it's unclear whether it improves political participation.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, concluded that it did not.

"This increase in early and convenience voting has had little impact on voter turnout, because citizens who vote early or vote by mail tend to vote anyway," according to the commission's September 2005 report.

Republicans also argued that the state already permits a form of early voting - Marylanders can cast absentee ballots before Election Day for no reason.

The effort also would be costly, said Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Harford County Republican. Estimates range from $630,000 in populous Montgomery County to $19,000 in Garrett County, the state's westernmost, according to the amendment's fiscal note. The counties are likely to bear much of that burden.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said that if voters approve the amendment in 2008, the state might have a different voting system by 2010, making any cost estimates unreliable.

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