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Expanded early voting makes sense

Last week’s Supreme Court decision gutting a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 sets the stage for a fresh round of debate over the integrity of the election process, voter suppression and ease of access to the polls through procedures such as same-day registration, provisional ballots and vote-by-mail.

Outside the glare of the federal case, a new law is going into effect in Maryland that is designed to make it easier for voters by expanding the number of early-voting polling places and allowing them to be open for eight days before Election Day, rather than six.

Montgomery County could get up to four new locations, on top of the five that have been in place — two were in the Rockville area, with one each for Silver Spring, Germantown and Burtonsville area neighborhoods.

Voters in liberal-leaning Montgomery County consistently have had a voracious appetite for politics and have insisted on high quality, accountable elected and appointed government leaders. With the county’s population eclipsing 1 million and voter rolls chocked with more than 620,000 names, mounting an election takes a small army of workers to cope with traditionally higher-than-national-average turnouts.

Having more polling places and additional early-voting days is sensible and the county’s election board should approve nine stations as it plots its options.

Statewide, the expanded voting is projected to cost an additional $1 million in the next fiscal year; Montgomery County says it’s too soon to pin down a more precise amount for the county’s operations, the largest in the state.

What’s apparent is that early voting is rapidly developing a following, with easier access for voters with harried schedules trumping a last-minute campaign bombshell that would be a mind-changer for some voters who cast ballots early.

A portion of a 2012 federal Government Accountability Office report on holding weekend elections looked at early voting turnout in Maryland in 2010, the first time weekend voting was tried in the state, and participation was in the single digits. Conclusion: “Turnout did not substantially increase during weekend poll hours.”

However two years later, in last fall’s high-profile presidential election, nearly 17 percent of the voters who cast ballots in Montgomery County did so before Election Day and another 8 percent used absentee ballots. Anecdotally, there were long lines at almost all of the early-voting stations.

Turnout can be wildly unpredictable, influenced by the issues, the economy, the candidates, the national mood — even the weather. Another significant influence, notable in the last two presidential races, was the get-out-the-vote efforts that have been taken to new levels by databases, social media, behavioral research and old-fashioned door knocking.

Educated citizen participation is critical to the success of a democracy and any invalid barriers to voting should be dismantled.

Maryland, while not at the forefront of innovation and relatively free of scandal, has been one of the more progressive states south of the Mason-Dixon line with its voting rules. Yet its Democratic political leaders have remained somewhat disingenuous in a broader sense because of a twisted history of gerrymandering election districts to ensure one-party domination, an issue that merits broader discussions, free of stifling political bosses.