By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – As many as 9,000 Republican voters have been forced to reapply for absentee ballots because the pre-printed applications sent by the state party did not meet Maryland State Board of Elections requirements, according to the Maryland Republican Party.
Although the deadline to request applications passed Tuesday, voters may still apply for an absentee ballot in person at any board of election or by sending a representative.
With the state governor’s race between Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Rep. Bob Ehrlich a statistical dead heat, the Republicans’ strategy to send their own pre-printed applications could become the difference in the election.
The decision to deny the applications was made Oct. 18 by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, who Republicans have accused of trying to influence next Tuesday’s election.
“If that isn’t stepping into the middle of people’s right to vote, I don’t know what is,” said Louis Pope, Maryland GOP vice-chairman.
“Before that piece was ever sent out it was checked by several attorneys,” he said. “The Attorney General’s Office decided they didn’t want us to send out pre-printed applications.”
State regulations require voters to apply for an absentee ballot using the Board of Elections official form, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
“It definitely does not comply with the state Board of Elections regulations,” said Judith Armould, assistant attorney general and counsel for election laws.
There had been problems with absentee ballots in previous elections, Armould said, so the state changed absentee ballot regulations in early 2000 to prevent parties from sending out their own applications.
The applications, sent out by the Republicans earlier this month, have the voter’s name and address already printed on the form, but they do not include a space to fill in the voter’s birthday as on the state’s official form.
The GOP forms, said Pope, do adhere to state law since the statute does not require a date of birth.
The state needs only a signature, he said.
“We’re abiding by the law. The state is enforcing a regulation,” said Paul D. Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
The Attorney General’s ruling has overwhelmed local elections officials, who have had to inform voters by mail — sending correct applications through the mail — and phone that their applications could not be accepted.
“We’ve been swamped,” said Jacqueline McDaniel, director of Baltimore County’s Board of Elections.
The county has received at least 800 corrected applications, McDaniel estimated, as voters have been quick to respond.
“As fast as we got them out, that’s as fast as they come in.”
Anne Arundel County’s Board of Elections has received about 1,800 incorrect applications since last Wednesday, said Director Barbara Fisher. Most of those voters, said Fisher, have returned the correct form.
Republicans were also quick to respond, calling voters to inform them of the problem, said Pope. The party also sent out an e-mail alert.
Democrats criticized their opponents for their carelessness.
“This was at a time when they should have known that the state Board of Elections was going to follow the law,” said David Paulson, Democratic Party spokesman. Democratic candidates send out their own absentee mailings, he said.
The Republican Party’s mistake, Paulson said, caused headaches for local officials and cost taxpayers.
Democratic candidates in Montgomery County, he said, complied with state rules and mailed out photocopies of the official absentee application to voters.
On Tuesday alone, by mid-afternoon, Anne Arundel County had received more than 70 applications, while McDaniel said that their fax machine had not stopped all day in Baltimore County.
Ellington hoped the party had reacted in time, but Pope was less optimistic.
“It’s going to be a big issue,” Pope said, “because they’re going to disenfranchise thousands of independent Republican voters.”