- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

A record number of voters nationwide are taking advantage of new laws that allow early voting or absentee-ballot voting without the excuse of being ill or out of town, election officials say.

The highest number of absentee-ballot requests are in Maryland, where it is the first time voters can vote absentee without an excuse, said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org.

“The general trend in the last year is more and more states are allowing early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots,” said Mr. Seligson.

Maryland has two hotly contested statewide races with Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin fighting for a U.S. Senate seat, as Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. squares off with Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.

“As of 8:20 a.m. we had requests for 188,643 ballots, and that is a record number,” said Donna Duncan, director of the Maryland Election Management Division.

More than 100,000 ballots have been requested in Virginia where Republican Sen. George Allen is being challenged in a tight race with Democrat James H. Webb Jr.

Voting laws are established state-by-state, and 15 states now allow “no-excuse early voting” through the mail and 16 states allow the practice in-person at local election headquarters.

Oregon and all but four counties in Washington state conduct elections entirely through the mail to save costs on hiring and training election staff.

However, there are some risks to using mail-in ballots, including voter fraud, election analysts say.

“There are procedures in place to safeguard against [fraud],” Mr. Seligson said. “Oregon’s signature verification is excellent, and they control when the ballots are sent and do address verification.”

“But I would say absentee votes in general is where there are cases of fraud. Prosecutions and convictions are almost always the case from absentee ballots. It’s easier to get away with, you don’t have to show your face.”

Nursing homes have been used in the past to request a number of absentee ballots for patients without their knowledge, then votes are cast for a particular candidate and returned to election officials.

But there are numerous benefits of convenience to the voter and poll workers.

“It reduces the number of people who vote on Election Day and reduces the number of people standing in line during the 12- to 14-hour vote Tuesday. It also prevents the system from straining with new machines and inexperienced poll workers,” Mr. Seligson said.

Cook County Clerk David Orr in Illinois is in charge of the third-largest election jurisdiction in the country with 1.3 million registered voters. His office has issued 23,000 early-voting ballots so far, which he says will make counting results election night quicker.

“We have one of the longest ballots in the nation with 71 judges up for retention votes, about four times the size as everyone else,” Mr. Orr said.

In Houston early voting is 10 percent higher than the last gubernatorial election in 2002, said Beverly Kaufman, Harris County clerk.

“Based on early voting, our turnout Election Day will be about 35 to 45 percent,” Mrs. Kaufman said.

Other states reporting record numbers of ballot requests are Montana, Indiana, Colorado, West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, and up by 45 percent in Tennessee where Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. is challenging Republican Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker for a Senate seat.

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