- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge yesterday overturned the General Assembly’s recently enacted early-voting law, saying the state constitution allows only one day of voting.

“This court finds that the General Assembly exceeded its constitutional authority in enacting the early voting statutes,” Judge Ronald A. Silkworth said in the ruling.

The finding resulted in flurry of responses yesterday.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office immediately appealed the ruling in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Judge Silkworth had ordered a stop to preparations for early voting in elections this fall, but stayed the order pending the appeals court’s decision.

Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the State Board of Elections, said she will prepare for early voting in anticipation of a successful appeal. “If the Court of Appeals agrees with the circuit court judge, we will simply not implement it,” she said.

The law, which the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed this year over the veto of Gov. Robert L. Erhlich Jr., would allow in-person balloting at specific polling places during the week before the Sept. 12 primary and Nov. 7 general election.

The law also was illegal because it allowed voters to cast ballots outside their home election district, Judge Silkworth ruled.

“The court finds that the constitution entitles qualified voters to cast their votes only in the ‘ward or election district in which he resides,’” he said. “This language is not permissive, but mandatory.”

The ruling was viewed as a victory by Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election. He said the measure would have increased opportunity for voter fraud.

The court “rejected the Maryland General Assembly’s approach to early voting as flawed, irresponsible and an overreach of the Maryland Constitution,” he said.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said the lawsuit was a Republican attempt to suppress voter turnout. He pointed out the lead plaintiff in the case was Queen Anne’s County resident Marirose J. Capozzi, a member of the county’s Republican Central Committee.

“Early voting is about one thing — expanding voting rights through safe, secure and convenient voting,” Mr. Lierman said. “While Governor Ehrlich obviously wants to make voting more difficult for selfish political reasons, the Maryland General Assembly overrode his vetoes and by overwhelming margins voted to solidify and expand voting rights.”

Mr. Ehrlich has argued that early voting and other new voting laws — including expanded use of absentee and provisional ballots — were intended to give Democratic candidates an advantage in Maryland, where there are roughly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

“The sanctity of Maryland elections must not be eroded for the sake of one party’s political advantage,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Nonetheless, I remain supportive of the concept of early voting and look forward to working with Maryland lawmakers next year to craft a sensible and nonpartisan approach … to ensure that Maryland conducts fair, accessible and accurate elections.”

The early-voting law is the third law passed this year over Mr. Ehrlich’s veto that has been struck down by the courts.

Maryland courts overturned a law that would have forced Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to pay a minimum amount of employee health benefits and a law that would have fired the governor-appointed Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said the ruling yesterday was a temporary setback for a law that would ultimately make voting more convenient.

“The court overturns legislative intent all the time,” said Mr. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat. “I don’t regard that as repudiation of anything. When we come back next year, we will just have to clarify the law.”

The state’s electoral process has been a frequent point of contention between Mr. Ehrlich and lawmakers, beginning with legislature’s intervention in 2003 to save the job of Miss Lamone, the state’s longtime top election official under Democratic administrations.

The governor also clashed with the legislature in his failed push to require a paper record of votes cast on the state’s new touch-screen voting machines.

A petition drive backed by Mr. Ehrlich to block early voting also failed when Miss Lamone in June invalidated scores of signatures.

Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, Prince George’s County Democrat, said the ruling undermined the legislature’s attempt to expand voting rights. He compared early voting to the 25-year extension of the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights and was recently signed into law by President Bush.

“We are not only giving people the right to vote but the ability to vote,” he said. “The ruling is not a setback for the General Assembly. It is a setback for the people.”

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