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Legislators Warming to Early Vote; Creation of Paper Trail for Ballots Also Is Gaining Support

By Ovetta Wiggins, The Washington Post, February 2, 2007; B06

Measures to change the way elections are run in Maryland are gaining momentum in the General Assembly, with top legislative leaders agreeing yesterday that the state Constitution needs to be amended to allow early voting.

They have also reached a consensus that Maryland needs to supplement its electronic voting system with a paper trail for each vote. A bill could pass this session, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said a lack of funding and limitations in technology might make it difficult to fully implement changes.

Lawmakers said the legislative remedies should rectify some of the problems that affected voters around the state during last year's primary and general elections, including long lines and faulty voting machines.

During separate hearings, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) offered testimony about companion bills that call for a constitutional amendment on early voting. If the legislation is approved, a question would go before voters next year.

A law took effect last year to allow early voting, but the state Court of Appeals struck it down before the September primary, declaring that it violated the state Constitution.

"We've all heard of the long lines on Election Day with hours of waiting and poorly trained election workers under pressure," Miller said in his written testimony to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "Early voting will alleviate these pressures and will lead to smoother elections."

If approved, Maryland would join more than 30 other states that use early voting.

"The core of this is giving the citizens of this state the right to determine whether they want to vote early," Busch told the House Ways and Means Committee.

With the problems at the polls last year, many lawmakers have placed election system changes at the top of their agendas.

Several bills are being considered, including one that would prohibit campaign "robo calls" to constituents on the federal Do Not Call Registry and another that would instruct local election boards to contact county Circuit Courts to extend voting if polls open more than an hour late.

Miller said he met with Linda H. Lamone, state administrator of elections, this week, telling her that a paper trail bill "is something that is going to happen. It's a matter of how and when."

He said it is also a "matter of the right technology and affordability."

At the Ways and Means Committee meeting yesterday, a bill was also heard that would require a paper record to verify voting. Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) sponsored an identical bill last year that unanimously cleared the House but did not make its way out of the Senate.

Hixson said that the legislation is a "work in progress" but that she hoped to place it on the fast track so the Senate had "plenty of time to act" on it. An analysis of the bill pegged its cost at a little more than $17 million from the state and $17 million from the counties and city of Baltimore.

Lamone told the Ways and Means Committee that she remains confident about the state's voting system. But, she said, she realized there is a consensus for a paper record for votes.

As a result, she proposed continuing to use the current system through the 2008 elections, which includes the presidential election. But, she said, every polling place might be required to have optical scan ballots available for any voter who wants to cast a ballot using paper. She said the state would have a new voting system in place by 2010.

Lamone said a speedy implementation of paper ballots could be disastrous, especially if it is coupled with early voting.

Her proposal provides an "immediate and reasonable partial solution" that would give a voter-verified paper record to those voters who wanted one, she said.

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