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Early voting: Is Maryland ready?

June 24, 2006

To the editor:

Since the disputed Florida ballot count in the 2000 presidential election, reforming election laws has been on the forefront of issues facing state legislatures across the nation. President Bush in 2002 signed into the law the Help America Vote Act, (HAVA) which placed federal mandates on states, including prohibition on the use of lever and punch-card voting machines and deployment of a statewide voter registration system.

Soon, many states, including Georgia, enacted a mandatory identification requirement to protect against voter fraud and voter disenfranchisement. Other states have loosened voting registration and absentee ballot requirements and have even gone as far as to expand the right to vote to felons. No state legislature in the nation, however, has gone as far as the 2006 Maryland General Assembly.

Over the past two years, the majority party of the Maryland General Assembly has enacted so-called "election reforms" that solely benefit one party under the pretense of increasing voter access and participation. The most controversial of these measures is the early-voting program.

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Under this scheme, individuals will be able to cast ballots on touch screen voting machines up to five days before Election Day at certain locations within their respective counties or voting jurisdictions. In addition, the majority party chose the locations for each early voting polling place with no consultation from the minority party or from any of the local election officials.

While we are not against early voting in concept, we are against implementing a program that overburdens local election officials while threatening the integrity of the elections process.

Evidence presented to the House Ways and Means Committee reflects that the State Board of Elections and several local boards had strong reservations with early voting at this time, because it would require the last-minute recruitment of additional poll workers, election judges and security guards.

Evidence also demonstrates that this early voting plan increased the potential for voter fraud, as there is virtually no way to track who votes and how many times they vote until after all the votes are certified. Further, no plan exists for securing these voting machines in the early voting locations over the five-day period.

The myth surrounding early voting is that having the polls open for additional days leading up to Election Day will increase voter turnout. There is simply no empirical data that substantiates such a contention. Rather, data available demonstrates that early voting only spreads out the expected turnout over the early voting period and adds an element of convenience.

While about 35 other states have some sort of early-voting program, most of these states have implemented safeguards to protect against voter fraud, including identification requirements. Maryland law does not have an identification requirement.

Therefore, unless early voting is stopped, Maryland will be the only state in the nation to allow statewide early voting, on touch-screen machines, with no paper trail and without identification.

With these issues at hand, we had sponsored a bill that would have delayed the implementation of the early voting until 2008. Unfortunately, the bill died in committee and we had no other legislative recourse available. Marylanders for Fair Elections has also recognized the problem with our state's early-voting law and has been engaged in a petition drive to bring the early-voting bills to referendum. Only with the requisite amount of signatures would early voting be placed on the 2006 ballot for the citizens of Maryland to decide whether to adopt the law as written.

Voting has been the bedrock of our democracy. Enacting election laws solely under the guise of "reform" threatens the ability of our local election officials to conduct a fair, accurate and secure election. While the concept of early voting does have potential, the prudent decision is to wait until we have a well thought-out, tested plan with safeguards against voter fraud to avoid compromising the elections and diluting the votes cast by all Marylanders.

Del. LeRoy Myers
Del. Robert McKee
Del. Joe Bartlett
Members, House Ways and Means Committee

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