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Fixing early voting

Anyone driving north on Honeygo Boulevard in White Marsh one week ago Friday in midafternoon might have been surprised at the slow crawl of traffic. So many vehicles were turning into Honeygo Run Regional Park that the right lane was set aside for them, and in the parking lot cars filled every no-parking zone and every patch of grass that could be occupied. More patient souls simply circled, waiting for a regular space to open.

It wasn't the boy's high school soccer playoff game that caused such a mess (although Perry Hall's overtime victory over Dulaney turned out to be a thriller), it was the extra day of early voting Gov. Martin O'Malley instituted to make up for the two days of early voting canceled earlier in the week because of Hurricane Sandy. The local community center, one of five early voting centers in Baltimore County, was flat-out mobbed with people.

When the dust settled form the storm-shortened week of early voting, the numbers were impressive: More than 430,000 Marylanders cast their ballots in early voting, and some, like those at Honeygo, stood in line for hours to do so. In one Prince George's County site, the last voter didn't check in until after midnight that same Friday night, three hours after the doors closed. That was nearly twice the turnout of two years ago, Maryland's first general election experience with early voting.

Requiring voters to stand in line for three hours is unacceptable. This year's debacle can be forgiven — at least somewhat — as state officials had no previous experience with early voting in a presidential election year, and the storm made matters worse. But there were also clues that this might happen. Four years ago, early voting centers were similarly mobbed in those states that offered them, and the problem surfaced elsewhere this year, too.

This isn't a statewide problem. The worst lines were in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Prince George's counties, according to the state elections board, while rural counties reported no problems whatsoever. But existing state law doesn't offer an easy way to correct the situation. Election officials might be able to invest in more equipment and expand the number of voting booths per site, but how many sites can be opened is defined by statute. Those metropolitan counties already operate the maximum of five. That needs to change.

The General Assembly should give local election boards the discretion to add additional early voting centers where and when that is justified. They probably won't be needed in two years (turnout for state elections tends to be much lower) or at primaries (ditto), but they likely will be necessary in four years in those three counties at minimum.

Republicans in Annapolis probably won't be wild about this idea. Far more Democrats take advantage of the early voting option, and GOP lawmakers have bickered in the past over polling locations they claim favor Democratic strongholds. If the big counties get more sites, they may insist that the rural ones do too. It's also debatable whether early voting improves overall turnout. This year's voter turnout in Maryland set no records; the 2.49 million total falls about 200,000 votes short of 2008.

Still, it's clearly a convenience, especially for working people who for whatever reason fail to apply for an absentee ballot. And higher early voting numbers should reduce pressure on Election Day crowds (where hourlong waits to vote were not uncommon at some locations this year). If Maryland is going to offer the option of early voting, it ought to be done right. A three-hour wait would seem to defeat the core purpose of early voting, which is to encourage more people to vote.

The costs are relatively minor, chiefly the salaries of election judges and machines (which must be secured and thus can't be reused on Election Day). But that pales next to the cost of switching over from touch-screen voting machines to optical scan equipment, an upgrade already sanctioned by the legislature that's expected to cost the state $30 million. When 17 percent of the electorate chooses early voting, as happened this year in Maryland, that's something of a mandate. But better to leave the specifics of how to serve more people more effectively to the discretion of county employees than to force extra machines and locations on jurisdictions that don't need them. That might keep partisans happy but would also be like forcing every gas station to be open 24 hours — helpful to some, wasteful to most.

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