Plan aims to ease voting

The Baltimore Sun

Aiming to avoid a repeat of the 2005 city election when some voters weren't listed on precinct rolls and had difficulty casting a vote, the Annapolis city council will take up a proposal to revise the election code and implement the use of provisional ballots.

The council also will consider loosening restrictions on absentee ballots.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who introduced the bill at Monday night's council meeting, said the move to allow such ballots - typically used when a voter's eligibility is in question - will bring the city into compliance with the state and county.

"We don't have a provision for provisional ballots, and the county and state does," she said. "This just tightens the code and ensures that nobody is disenfranchised."

Provisional ballots are used to record votes when a person's name does not appear on a precinct's list of registered voters. They are used in jurisdictions across Maryland.

The ballots aren't counted unless a voter's eligibility is later verified.

A 2006 report by the city's Board of Supervisors of Election, on which Moyer based her ordinance, noted instances in the 2005 election where residents had difficulty casting votes because they had been removed from the county's rolls.

Penny Evans, who has been a poll worker and watcher and also sat on the Election Code Task Force Committee, which was convened to study election rules, said it's important to provide a contingency for such instances.

"Everybody who keeps lists makes mistakes now and then, and that's a reason to have provisional ballots," she said. "Every voter must have the opportunity to vote, according to federal law."

In some cases, people have arrived at polling places to vote, only to find that they aren't listed as registered, said Regina Watkins, city clerk. A phone call to the county election board often clears up the confusion, but provisional ballots would save time by allowing the person to vote without tracking down his eligibility status, she said.

"At the end of the election, it would take longer to get an official count, but it would give everybody the option to vote if they chose to," she said.

In the 2004 general election, Maryland voters cast 48,000 provisional ballots. Of those, 23,000 were accepted in full and 8,000 in part; 17,000 were rejected. Of the 17,000 rejected ballots, 14,000 were completed by people who were not registered to vote.

In the 2006 statewide primary, thousands of voters cast provisional ballots because of problems with electronic voting machines.

Absentee voters who didn't receive their ballots in the mail on time also were allowed to cast provisional ballots.

Under Moyer's ordinance, it would also be easier for voters to cast absentee ballots.

Currently, a voter must be ill, disabled, out of town or have some other extenuating circumstance to qualify for an absentee ballot. The new legislation would allow any voter to request an absentee ballot and be placed on a permanent application list for the ballots.

The proposal is in keeping with a growing demand for absentee ballots statewide - a record 175,500 voters requested ballots last year.

Moyer said her measure could boost voter turnout. Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, agreed.

"I think that there is a perception that by making it more convenient, then more people will vote," he said. "It seems likely that over time, there will be a loosening of the process and less of a focus on what happens on Election Day."

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