Rascovar: Maryland’s early-voting setup inadequate -- Gazette.Net


By Barry Rascovar

In politics, you should always expect the unexpected -- even a record-setting storm named Sandy.

What had been a fairly predictable week leading up to the Nov. 6 general election blew apart, thanks to Sandyís cyclonic winds, torrential rains and massive flooding -- not to mention a fierce blizzard in Western Maryland.

Early voting, off to a firm start last weekend (134,000 votes cast), had to be postponed for the duration of this extraordinary hurricane-noríeaster. Cleanup activity, not campaign activity, now claims center stage.

Is that good news or bad news for the four hotly contested ballot questions?

We know it wonít affect the outcome of the presidential and U.S. Senate results, given Marylandís overwhelming Democratic tilt in voter registration.

It could influence the tight race between Rep. Roscoe Bartlett and Democrat John Delaney in the 6th Congressional District.

If Sandy-related difficulties hold down turnout in the Democratic (Montgomery County) half of this district, Bartlett could have a slight edge since his hardy Western Maryland followers are used to showing up at the polls, regardless of what Mother Nature hurls at them.

The ballot questions are another matter. A smaller than expected turnout Nov. 6 could decide some of those referendums.

Supporters of gay marriage and in-state college tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants are better organized than their opponents and will have far larger get-out-the-vote drives on Tuesday.

Thatís probably true as well for supporters of casino expansion. Highly disciplined Democratic groups, like teachers unions, will be out in force making sure they tell voters to cast a ďyesĒ vote to expand gambling in the state.

That could be the case as well for the congressional redistricting question. The Democratic Partyís well-developed Election Day infrastructure gives the current congressional maps a chance to survive beyond this election cycle.

Yet Democrats might have gained an even bigger edge this year had legislators and the governor not been so wary of early voting.

Unlike other states, Maryland has been slow to grasp the popularity of extended voting periods. Fears of ballot stuffing and higher costs for local governments led the General Assembly to restrict the number of days and sites.

That was a big mistake by Democrats. Theyíve made it difficult for people to vote early. Consequently, Marylandís early voting numbers are puny compared with those in other states.

In Montgomery and Prince Georgeís counties, more than 1 million voters have just five polling places in each jurisdiction where they can cast ballots this week. The same holds true in Baltimore city and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, with a combined 1.3 million voters.

That is a ludicrous situation. It discourages people from voting early, which pleases minority Republicans immensely since the vast majority of votes cast this week are Democratic.

Other states offer far more voting opportunities. The result is already impressive and could affect the outcome of the presidential election.

In Nevada, for instance, the number of early votes cast already equals over half of all the votes cast in the last presidential election. Far more Nevada Democrats than Republicans have voted so far, which should help President Barack Obama.

In North Carolina, previously viewed as a safe state for Republican Mitt Romney, a record number of African Americans are voting early. By next Tuesday, 60 percent of adult blacks in that state may have voted in advance, most likely for Obama. Polls show Obama taking 55 percent of the early voting.

In pivotal Ohio, close to 1.3 million people have already cast their ballots with more mail-in ballots steadily arriving. Sandy didnít seem to stop people from showing up at Ohioís early-voting sites this week, either.

Compare this to Marylandís slim effort with less than 4 percent of registered voters casting ballots last weekend before Sandy arrived. Weíre on track to record a relatively small early-voting total

Thatís inexcusable in this day and age.

Compounding the difficulties for those waiting until Nov. 6 is the length of this yearís ballot seven complicated statewide questions and up to twice that number of county issues in some jurisdictions.

Long lines on Tuesday will discourage many from spending two hours in the middle of a busy work day to vote. It could test their dedication to this basic American right.

The governor extended early voting through Friday and extended the hours. That helps somewhat.

But with just 46 sites statewide, legislators and the governor will wind up with the result they initially intended --depressed early-voting numbers.

Yet it is clear people like the flexibility that comes with voting early either in person or by mail. Maryland is a laggard.

In other states, early voting is leading to large turnouts. Many more people are starting to participate in the electoral process.

Letís hope the problems cropping up in Maryland will persuade the governor and lawmakers to bring this state into the 21st century by broadening early voting. Itís the democratic thing to do.

Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.