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Polls and politics

On Monday night, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the O'Malley administration's proposal to make it easier to cast a ballot in Maryland despite lingering criticism from some in the GOP that somehow early voting and same-day voter registration will lead to an outbreak of voter fraud. That is about as likely as Rep. Paul Ryan endorsing Amtrak, food stamps and an expansion of Obamacare in his next budget proposal.

A far better criticism of the measure is that it doesn't go far enough, or perhaps that it imposes an expensive obligation on local government without providing for a funding source. But as for voter fraud, the effect is neither to loosen nor tighten voter ID standards, and as Maryland has yet to experience any serious outbreak of this favored GOP bugaboo, that seems about right.

The bill would essentially do three things. First, it would provide for same-day registration during the early voting period. This is a convenience that should allow more people to vote — such as those who change address but fail to update their registration far enough in advance of an election.

What protections are offered to prevent fraud? The standards are the same as those imposed on everyone else who registers to vote in Maryland. Applicants will be expected to present a proof of residency — most commonly a driver's license.

Second, the measure would enhance early voting. Last year, the state was ill-prepared for the flood of early voters in certain jurisdictions. More than 430,000 Marylanders took advantage of the convenience despite Hurricane Sandy. That represented nearly one in six votes cast in that contest. Some had to wait for hours because of long lines.

The solution would be to open more polling places — as many as eight in the state's largest jurisdictions, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties. Last year, those jurisdictions had five early voting sites each. Even some sparsely populated rural counties will at least have the option of adding polling places to help overcome long-distance driving to the polls.

Finally, it also makes it easier to vote absentee. Voters will be able to download an absentee ballot on their computers as late as the Friday prior to an election. That keeps the window for absentee ballot requests open a few days more than it has been in the past.

Historically, absentee balloting is the most vulnerable to fraud, but the measure appears to address the chief concern — that merely requiring an applicant's driver's license number would not make the process sufficiently secure. Elections officials will also use the last four digits of the applicant's Social Security number and a security question to minimize that potential vulnerability.

So what are the real shortcomings of the bill? The most obvious is that it isn't really far-reaching enough. Same-day registration would be even more useful on election days and not just during early voting, with its handful of polling places. But that would require amending the state's constitution.

And while the legislation has a minimal cost to the state (about $125,000 annually), it sticks local government with the bill for all those election judges and the other necessities needed to open additional early-voting polling sites. The price tag? About $1.2 million. In the parlance of government, that's called an unfunded mandate and is regarded as a bad thing.

Finally, we would have preferred to see same-day registration allow voters to change party affiliation. The argument against it is purely political: Democrats fear that Republicans will change parties to make mischief in primary elections. But we think the argument for it — that in Democratic-leaning Maryland, too many contests are settled during the primary to block such access — is far more compelling. In places like Baltimore City, Republicans and independents who can't vote in Democratic primaries effectively have no say in municipal elections.

Nevertheless, Maryland is slowly modernizing its clunky voter apparatus, and that's generally a good thing. Gov. Martin O'Malley has decided to finally fund the switch back to optical scanning voting machines statewide by 2016, providing the paper trail that the current touch-screen technology lacks. That should help assure voters that elections are accurate. Lawmakers shouldn't allow a few baseless cries about fraud to dissuade them from increasing voter access, too.

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