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Every vote counts - the question is how to count them

February 05, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS -

It's a fundamental American privilege, but in the politically charged world of election-year lawmaking, even the simple act of voting has sparked sharp disagreements between the parties in the General Assembly.

It started with a number of election law changes approved last year by the General Assembly, but vetoed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich. The changes included allowing five days of early voting and letting voters cast "provisional" ballots in other precincts besides their own, anywhere in the state. The General Assembly overrode the governor's vetoes early in this year's session.

While the official arguments for the changes were to provide more opportunities for citizens to vote, opponents sensed the real reason had less to do with who was occupying voting booths than with who was occupying the governor's mansion. They feared the changes would allow people to vote early and often - and defraud the upcoming election.

One of the biggest backers of the changes was Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat who has made no secret of the fact that he wants a Democrat to defeat Ehrlich in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Miller's push for election law changes - to be implemented this year - prompted Ehrlich to refer to them on Friday as the state's "election reform, Mike Miller-style."

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A proposal to move the Maryland primary from September to June appeared to be dead, Miller reluctantly reported as the General Assembly convened last month. Republican officials, including Ehrlich, were convinced that changing the primary was a ploy to give Democrats more time to mount a campaign against the governor after a potentially divisive primary race between Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. So many Democrats in the General Assembly feared the change would hurt their own campaigns, however, that it seemed unlikely.

But other changes loom that could affect this year's elections.

Although the state recently spent millions to install touch-screen voting terminals throughout the state, several bills offered this year would require "paper trails," allowing voters to review a paper receipt of their completed ballots.

Proponents argue that paper trails would protect elections from mistakes and fraud; opponents say Maryland voters aren't particularly worried about the integrity of the state's elections and that changing the system now would create more problems than it would solve.

Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, serves on the legislative subcommittee on election laws. He sees plenty of trouble on the election horizon if the state elections board is forced to make all of these changes in time for the primary.

He is especially leery of both the potential for fraud that provisional ballots present and the motivation behind them.

Voters who vote provisionally outside their own districts couldn't vote on local races; the ballots would be prepared for the district in which the vote is cast. The ballots would be certified and counted after other votes are tabulated. Opponents of provisional ballots argue there's little to prevent a voter from traveling from county to county to cast votes for statewide office.

"Why would you, if you believe your vote is so valuable - and I believe it is - why would you even consider voting a provisional ballot in another jurisdiction?" Myers said. "The only answer to that question is fraud."

Foes of Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate, "can take anyone at all and load the system up with the two offices they want to affect - the U.S. Senate and the governor."

And while he has supported the concept of early voting, Myers argues the state doesn't have time to prepare for early voting - or any other changes - by September.

He also believes that any change should include one requirement to prevent fraud - presentation of photo identification before a voter is permitted to cast a ballot.




Practical matters



As political as all of these arguments have become, simple practicality might decide what changes, if any, are implemented in time for the September primary. The House Ways and Means Committee heard last week that studies of several systems designed to verify and recount votes found they were expensive, difficult, untried and made voting more difficult.

Don Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, conducted some of the studies. He told the committee that "each system may have something to offer only if it is fully developed, integrated (with the current touch-screen systems) and properly implemented."

"None is yet fully developed or readily available," he said. None has ever been used in the United States, and only one provided a paper trail, he added.

Of all the systems studied, Norris said he couldn't recommend any.

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