By JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Senior legislative leaders began a push Thursday for a renewal of the early voting law that touched off a partisan fight in the General Assembly last year and was later struck down by the courts.
This time, the bill is coming back in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment and it has the support of Gov. Martin O'Malley. It was sent on its way Thursday with a powerful push by the two top Democrats in the General Assembly, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George's, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
The measure will almost surely face opposition from members of the legislature's Republican minority, who contend that early voting is an open invitation to fraud.
Early voting measures allow voters to cast their ballots at certain polling places in the days leading up to a general or primary election. The concept has had a tortuous history in Maryland.
The bill was passed after a bitter partisan fight in the 2005 session but immediately vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican. As soon as the Assembly reconvened in January of last year, Democrats overrode the veto and enacted it into law.
But the law was challenged in the courts and ruled unconstitutional a few weeks before the Sept. 14 primary. So now Miller and Busch are back with a constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved in a referendum by the voters in 2008 if it passes the General Assembly.
Proponents of the bill expect the early voting measure to reduce lines on Election Day, minimize errors committed by poll workers and make voting more accessible and convenient.
"We only had 57 percent of the voting population vote in the year 2004 making us 30th in the nation in terms of the percentage of people voting at polling places," Miller said. "We hope that with this bill perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the persons eligible to vote in the state of Maryland will participate in the early voting process."
Jerry Garson, a member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, said he saw people waiting in line for over half an hour to vote in the primary in 2006.
"Would you wait that long to get gas?" he said.
Should the constitutional amendment pass, Maryland would join 37 states that have some form of early voting. Additionally, the bill would allow voters to cast ballots at polling places in or outside their election districts.
Miller indicated he felt the proposed constitutional amendment would easily pass in view of the fact the portions of the bill not declared unconstitutional in 2006 which were petitioned to referendum passed with a 60 percent majority.
Unlike Ehrlich, who feared fraud with early voting, O'Malley is behind the proposed constitutional amendment.
"He believes we should be making it easier for voters [to cast ballots] and not harder, and early voting does that," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.
But Republicans are still concerned about the possibility of irregularities. "Do you want to give up the integrity and security of the system for some convenience?" asked Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard, the minority whip. He said he would be more amenable to the idea of early voting if the state were to stiffen its identification requirement for voters.