By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Despite their diminished numbers, Senate Republicans succeeded again Tuesday in delaying progress of a proposal to allow early voting in Maryland, demanding details about how it would work and pointing out what they said were weaknesses in the measure.
Majority Democrats suggested the GOP was staging a "mini-filibuster" to slow passage of the proposal, which is in the form of a constitutional amendment to be put before the voters in 2008.
If passed, the amendment would allow voters to cast their ballots before Election Day. Democrats say this would improve voter turnout, while Republicans say the measure is ambiguous and could increase the possibility of voter fraud.
"What we're trying to do here is ensure voter integrity," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick.
Republican opponents of the measure are fighting an uphill battle, however. The proposed amendment has the support of the General Assembly's top leaders and of Gov. Martin O'Malley.
This is the Assembly's second attempt to allow Marylanders to cast their ballots before Election Day. The measure passed after a bitter partisan battle in 2005 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican. Democrats overrode the veto during the 2006 session. Early voting was then struck down as unconstitutional by a Maryland court. This ruling was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals on Friday, August 25, 2006. According to the Baltimore Sun, "Lawyers—one of whom has ties to the Republican Party—filed a lawsuit to overturn the practice, arguing in part that the state constitution specifies that voting be held on one day, not several."
With the impetus of legislative leaders behind it, this year's version of the bill came swiftly out of committee to the Senate floor. But there, Republican legislators have managed to delay it - first on Friday and then again Tuesday.
Brinkley proposed adding an amendment to the bill that would allow Marylanders to use electronic voting machines before Election Day only if they were doing so from their home districts. Otherwise they would have to send in a paper ballot, much like absentee voters.
"This only makes sense," said Senate Minority Whip Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard, who expressed his concerns about ballots being counted more than once. "Do we really want to have people voting five counties away where the security may not be as good as their home county?"
The two minority leaders spent nearly a half hour firing questions at Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary's, the floor manager of the bill. Afterwards, Dyson dismissed the question-and-answer session, and emphasized that the question was simply whether to allow Marylanders to vote on the proposed constitutional amendment.
"Same questions, same time, next year," he said. "Only we don't even have an early voting bill on the floor this time. Essentially we're talking about a legislative package here."
Along with Brinkley's proposed amendment to the bill, which some Democrats called unnecessary, Dyson sought to address Republican concerns by offering an amendment that would limit the number of days available for early voting.
However, Dyson assured critics that their full concerns will be addressed when new legislation is drafted if the amendment is passed in the 2008 election. He said that now they are concerned only with getting the proposed constitutional amendment passed and before the voters. "I think they [the public] will vote for it," he said. "To me, an election is the most important thing in the world. I think by extending the time you'll have, then more people will vote."