Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Early Voting Proposal Roils District 4 Race (Updated)

Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved early voting last year and an upcoming state bill would allow it in the District 4 special election. In a county full of liberals that supported early voting, what could be wrong with this? Plenty, say some opponents.

Maryland’s early voting system goes back to 2006, when a law allowing it passed the General Assembly over Governor Ehrlich’s veto but was struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. In 2007, the General Assembly passed SB 1, a constitutional amendment allowing early voting, by a 31-16 vote in the Senate and a 107-32 vote in the House. (No Democrats voted against it other than Senators James Brochin and George Della.) Voters approved the amendment, which passed in every county, by a 72%-28% margin.

The text of the amendment as approved by the voters says:

Authorizes the General Assembly to enact legislation to allow qualified voters to vote at polling places inside or outside of their election districts or wards and to vote up to two weeks before an election. This amendment also authorizes the General Assembly to enact legislation to allow absentee voting by qualified voters who choose to vote by absentee ballot, in addition to voters who are absent at the time of the election or who are unable to vote personally.
And so the General Assembly must draft legislation to implement the proposal, a matter currently under discussion. But since the legislature adjourns in early April and the District 4 primary is on April 21, it is unlikely that a broad bill would be passed quickly enough to facilitate early voting in the special election. To deal with that issue, Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18) is proposing a bill ensuring that early voting applies in all special elections prior to June 30, 2009. His proposal is attracting both support and opposition.

In the past, opposition to early voting has come primarily from conservatives. The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund associated early voting with fraud, strong-arm tactics, lawsuits and recounts. Columnist George Will asked, “What kind of people will not vote if doing so requires them to get off their couches and visit neighborhood polling places?” National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg said, “My own view is that voting should be more difficult because things of value usually require a little work.”

Maryland Republicans agree; the state GOP announced its opposition to early voting last October. House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell said the amendment was “ripe for fraud” and Senate Minority Leader Allan Kittleman said the state “cannot jeopardize the integrity of our elections merely for the purpose of convenience.” The GOP tried unsuccessfully to stall the amendment back in 2007.

Other opponents point to occasional critical events that come late in campaigns, such as Texas Governor candidate Clayton Williams’ flippant comment about rape in 1990, the revelation of George W. Bush’s DUI charge in 2000 and the collapse of the American economy just before the 2008 Presidential election. Critics say that early voting deprives citizens of such information if they vote too early.

Early voting was not opposed by any element of Maryland’s left. The League of Women Voters, Common Cause Maryland, the Maryland ACLU and Progressive Neighbors all argued in favor of the amendment. The NAACP has called for early voting in all 50 states. One of early voting’s highest-profile supporters was Senate President Mike Miller – hardly a darling of liberals – who said, “The important aspect of early voting is that working men and women can actually vote on Saturday… They don’t have to take off work on Tuesday to vote.”

Our sources tell us that three Montgomery County Council Members have expressed reservations about early voting in the special election: Phil Andrews (a former Executive Director of Common Cause), Duchy Trachtenberg and Marc Elrich. Council Members George Leventhal, Valerie Ervin, Nancy Floreen, Mike Knapp and Roger Berliner (who is the only sitting member of the council who has run in a special election) support early voting in the District 4 race. Council Members Andrews, Trachtenberg and Elrich all endorsed Don Praisner over Nancy Navarro last year and none of them spoke out against early voting last fall. Many in Rockville are speculating that part of the reason for opposition to early voting is suspicion that it will help Navarro. A supporter of one of Navarro’s opponents wailed to your author, “Why are they changing the rules in the middle of the game?”

That’s a simple question that deserves a simple answer: because the voters wanted them changed. Montgomery County passed early voting by an 80%-20% vote, the third-highest margin in the state behind Prince George’s County (90%-10%) and Baltimore City (85%-15%). The two Leisure World precincts, 13-54 and 13-69, voted by a combined 2,441-1,309 (65%-35%) margin in favor of early voting. In last year’s special election, precinct 5-12 (Paint Branch High School) gave Nancy Navarro her lowest vote percentage of the race (24% vs. 67% for Don Praisner). This same precinct voted in favor of early voting by an 84%-16% margin. Could Montgomery voters really have intended to allow early voting in all elections except special elections?

Regardless of their reasons for resistance, Montgomery’s early voting opponents should think carefully about the political implications of this debate. Do they want to be on the same side as the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, Common Cause and 80% of Montgomery’s voters? Or do they want to side with John Fund, George Will, Jonah Goldberg and the Maryland Republican Party on a position that puts them to the right of Mike Miller?

Update: After reviewing a draft of Senator Madaleno’s proposal, Council Member Marc Elrich is supporting the bill.