Early-voting plans begin

The Baltimore Sun

Lawmakers have begun drafting plans for early voting after Marylanders approved the practice last fall, but the state elections chief urged them yesterday to limit the process or risk a disaster during next year's election.

Testifying on voting issues in Annapolis, elections administrator Linda H. Lamone cautioned legislators to abandon a plan that would allow "anyone to vote anywhere," in favor of allowing voters to cast early decisions only in their home counties.

"Let's wait until we get our sea legs," she said, before expanding early-voting options. "We don't want anything to go wrong."

With more than 500 styles of ballots across the state - about 100 in Prince George's County alone - Lamone predicted problems ensuring that voters receive the correct ballot, and steep costs associated with printing enough of the many ballot styles. Maryland is switching from touch-screen machines to optical scanning of paper ballots, making ballot distribution more unwieldy.

Lamone also told lawmakers that early voting could create a serious time crunch for elections officials, with primary and general elections separated by just 45 days. She ticked off the steps between the two elections and concluded that officials would have less than two weeks before Election Day to work with early voting - "if nothing goes wrong."

"My caution to you is: The earlier you start early voting, the more pressure you put on us," she said.

Sen. Mike Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat, has proposed legislation that would authorize voters to cast ballots early and on Election Day in "any polling place." But after questioning Lamone at yesterday's hearing, he seemed open to amending his bill, which also calls for 10 days of early voting in the two weeks before Election Day.

Lenett called Lamone's suggestions "reasonable and valid" and said he was considering changing his proposal to reflect her ideas.

"I think we can approach this in a gradual fashion," he said, adding that, over time, he expected issues with early voting to "work themselves out."

Although lawmakers will set the general procedures for early voting, the state Board of Elections will choose the polling places.

More than 30 states allow early voting, and Marylanders overwhelmingly approved the measure Nov. 4.

Some lawmakers also want to consider expanding voting in another way, by allowing Election Day registration, an option available in nine other states.

Wisconsin has used same-day registration since 1976, and state officials testified yesterday about how smoothly it can work.

Kevin Kennedy, director of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, said that there has never been any evidence of fraud related to same-day registration and that voters there had a "very positive view" of the process.

Election Day registration would require another voter-approved constitutional amendment. Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he is working on legislation that would put the issue on the 2010 ballot. If voters approve, same-day registration could be available as early as the 2012 election.

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