- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — The number of Marylanders requesting absentee ballots already exceeds the number of absentee votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, and requests are still coming in at a rapid rate, with three weeks left until the Nov. 7 general election.

A law that took effect this year removed all restrictions on the use of absentee ballots, which previously were available only to voters who could not make it to the polls on Election Day.

That new availability, fallout from the problem-plagued primary elections, and questions about the reliability of the state’s electronic voting system from some political leaders — especially Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — have created a new level of interest in voting absentee this year.

If the flood of requests continues, it could swamp election officials with extra work and delay the outcome of closely contested elections.

“It certainly increases the workload. There’s a lot of processing that takes place,” said Ross Goldstein, deputy state elections administrator.

“As for the election results, if you have a close race or even a not-so-close race that’s within the margin of the absentee ballots, everybody is going to have to sort of sit and wait” to see who wins, he said.

Four years ago, when Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, was elected governor, 65,824 absentee ballots were counted. In the 2004 presidential election, the number was 137,953.

As of yesterday afternoon, election boards in Baltimore and the 23 counties had reported receiving 87,588 requests from 40,565 Democrats, 38,161 Republicans, and independents or members of minor parties.

Marylanders have until Oct. 31 to mail or fax requests to local boards, although emergency requests for absentee ballots can be submitted in person up to Election Day.

Election officials have no way of knowing whether a record will be set this year for absentee ballots.

Barbara L. Fisher, Anne Arundel County’s elections administrator, said her staff handled about 6,400 absentee ballots four years ago but has processed about 9,500 requests this year and will “probably have several thousand more” to handle.

“We are having difficulty keeping up with it. We’ve been here until 11 p.m. every night,” she said.

Mr. Ehrlich has been among the most insistent voices promoting absentee ballots as a way for Marylanders to ensure that their votes are counted, making automated phone calls promoting use of absentee ballots and openly questioning the ability of state and local elections officials to conduct trouble-free balloting on Election Day.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, also said he would vote absentee and urged others to follow his lead.

Although Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Duncan say paper ballots are more reliable than electronic touch-screen machines, some election analysts say the opposite is true.

“It’s just astounding that there would be this widespread call for absentee ballots when we know that a higher percentage of them won’t get counted, for whatever reason,” said John Willis, former Maryland secretary of state and a specialist on state elections.

“It’s fear driving this,” he said. “You are actually increasing the potential for challenges the more you use paper.”

Mr. Willis said every study he has seen has shown that electronic machines such as those used in Maryland are more reliable and produce a more accurate count than paper ballots do.

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