Following an election season marked by long lines and long ballots, Maryland lawmakers are confronting a flurry of bills aimed at tweaking the voting process.
“Just after an election, everyone wants to make corrections,” said Del. Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where 16 bills dealing with elections are scheduled to be heard Thursday.
“We had a lot of long lines, so a lot of the bills are to fix logistical sort of stuff,” she said. “We also had five referendums on the ballot, more than ever before, so we want to make sure we clean it up, make sure those rules are fair.”
One of the bills is from Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration and would expand the days, hours and locations for early voting.
“A lot of this grew out of [Superstorm] Sandy, where we saw there was a desire for people to come and vote,” said O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory, referencing the October weather event that forced elections officials to close early-voting centers two of the six scheduled days. “This is about giving everybody a chance to participate.”
O’Malley’s bill allows Marylanders to register on the same day as they show up for early voting. Counties also are required to have a certain number of early-voting centers, depending on the population. Counties with more than 450,000 registered voters would have to open eight centers. Currently, they are only required to have five.
Early voting also would run for a full week — from the second Thursday before all primary and general elections to the Thursday before the election — and centers would have to be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during presidential elections, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for other elections.
In some precincts, especially in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties, there were reports of voters waiting two to three hours to vote early, said Ross Goldstein, spokesman for the State Board of Elections.
“We did a lot of data analysis afterward, and there was no one smoking gun that led to the long waits,” Goldstein said. “Obviously the length of the ballot, with both state and local issues, was a factor. A lot of times people also showed up early, before the polls even opened, so [poll workers] started out behind and couldn’t catch up.”
Although legislative analysts have not yet crunched numbers for how much the governor’s bill would cost, any expansion of early voting would be a mandate for local governments, which means they would have to find the funding for more voting machines and the people to man them.
Another bill, introduced by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) and Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore), reaches further than the governor’s bill in expanding early voting. The expansion proposed in the bill — nine days of early voting and every county having between two and 10 voting centers, depending on population — would cost the state $1.4 million over the next four years. Local governments would be on the hook for $3.9 million over the next two years, plus additional costs if updated voting systems with new technology are adopted.
“Obviously, it’s difficult because it’s up to the counties to find funding for that,” Goldstein said. “But in some cases, they want that expansion. Some of them see a need for more early voting.”
The Maryland Association of Counties has not taken an official position on the bills.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) said he’s open to looking at provisions for early voting, after he saw firsthand the long lines in which some voters had to wait. But other parts of O’Malley’s bill scare him, he said.
“The same-day voter registration, that provision scares me very, very much because it gives an opportunity for those people who want to game the system,” O’Donnell said.
Legislators also are trying to tackle a slew of issues related to elections, including changes to how petitions make it to the ballot in the form of referendums. Proposed bills would change the requirements for the number of signatures and how those signatures are collected and approved. The changes are being promoted by Democratic lawmakers, who saw three of their laws put to voters last year, although all three passed.
Another election bill would create a public financing mechanism for General Assembly campaigns, and another would close the LLC loophole in campaign finance laws that allows a company with multiple subsidiaries to donate the maximum amount for each subsidiary, in effect multiplying the total amount given by a single donor.
There is a bill to increase penalties for distribution of fraudulent information to voters, one to require more extensive reporting from precincts on absentee and provisional ballots, and one to conduct elections by mail.
There are also two bills to study the redistricting process — one introduced by Republicans and one with co-sponsors from both parties.
Redistricting is just one of the issues Republicans are going after: One ballot question before voters was whether to uphold a district map drawn by a largely Democratic commission that was criticized by Republicans and some Democrats as a gerrymander.
Republicans in the General Assembly also are focusing on increasing penalties for voter fraud, protecting the identity of those who sign petitions from public scrutiny and requiring additional identification for voters.
“Thirty-three states have implemented these voter ID laws,” said Del. Kathryn L. Afzali (R-Frederick), who has introduced a voter ID law and a law to make voter fraud a felony.
“If anything, voter rolls have increased,” she said. “If the leadership doesn’t want to pass voter ID, then at least when someone is caught intentionally fraudulently voting, that will be a felony. We’re really just trying to establish confidence in voting by putting safeguards in place so that people know their vote counts.”