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Election laws in limbo

June 13, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

HAGERSTOWN

In just a few weeks, Maryland voters will have a complete list of candidates in the Sept. 12 primary election, as the deadline to file for office is July 3. What is not so certain, however, is just how this year's elections will be run.

During the past two regular sessions of the General Assembly, Democratic legislators pushed through a number of bills altering state election laws to allow voters to cast ballots before the actual election day, and to allow them to vote outside their precincts with "provisional" ballots.

Almost since the General Assembly concluded in April, Republicans have been gathering signatures on petitions to take the early voting law to referendum, effectively preventing it from taking effect this year - even if they have to go to court.

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They contend these rewrites to the election law invited voter fraud and were designed specifically to affect two expected close races: Between Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the winner of the Democratic primary between Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, and the U.S. Senate race between Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and whoever emerges from the legion of candidates running for the Democratic nomination. The problem, Republicans say, is there aren't enough safeguards in place to prevent people from voting early and often.

They gathered enough signatures to make a preliminary deadline at the end of May, and must compile 52,000 valid signatures of registered voters statewide by June 30 to petition the law onto the ballot.

"We set a goal of 2,200 in Washington County," said Republican Central Committee Chairwoman Paula Lampton. As of Monday evening, they had 1,800, she said.

But it's "definitely a bipartisan issue," Lampton said.

Even if they get the signatures, there's a question about whether they'll count. That's because the deadline for petitions is based on the date of the law, initially passed last year but vetoed by Ehrlich. The General Assembly overrode the veto in the session that just ended. The question is "when you feel the clock started," said Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany.

"We want to have the opportunity to fight it in court or get it into the appeals process," Lampton said. "Our real goal is we would like the voters to decide and not the legislature."

Myers attempted during the legislative session to prevent the early voting law from being implemented for this year's election. A member of the House Ways and Means Committee that conducts hearings on election laws, Myers said that while he supported early voting in theory, he didn't believe the state election board could adequately prepare for it in time for the primary.

Though the state Board of Public Works last week approved a $2.4 million contract with Diebold Election Systems for computer equipment for early voting, Myers said Monday he asked Diebold representatives when their systems would be ready to adequately safeguard the elections, "and the answer they gave me was 16 months." He conceded that Washington County wouldn't have nearly the potential for voter fraud as more populous counties.

County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel said Monday that her staff planned to have 16 voting stations available at the Election Board office on Potomac Street for early voting Sept. 5 to 9. "We're fine," she said. "We'll do what we have to do. We always do."

Anyone wishing to sign the petition may call Lampton at 301-797-3409.

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