ANNAPOLIS – The General Assembly overturned vetoes of two bills Tuesday that supporters say will increase access to the polls but which opponents warn will open the door to voter fraud.
Under the new laws, election officials will be required to open some polls in every district for five days within the eight day period immediately before Election Day. Local election boards will determine which polls to open. Ballots cast early will not be counted before Election Day.
Voters will also be allowed to file provisional ballots in any polling place across the state.
The reversals of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s vetoes of the Voters Rights Protection Act of 2005 and the early voting bill continue the trend of high-profile overrides of vetoes of a Republican governor by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
“It will move us closer to protecting the right of all citizens to vote,” said Delegate Obie Patterson, D – Prince George’s.
Opponents of both bills argued that the new laws will increase the likelihood of fraud by making it possible for one person to vote in every jurisdiction in the state by using provisional ballots.
“Making sure that there is not voter fraud is just as important as making sure people have the right to vote,” the House minority whip, Anthony J. O’Donnell, R – Southern Maryland, said. “Cheating disenfranchises us all.”
A statewide voter database, which would make it possible to update the status of every registered voter as he or she votes and alert election officials to attempts at fraud would make the law more reasonable, opponents said.
The state Senate overrode the veto of the two bills last week, when some Republican Senators stained their index fingers purple and waved them in the air as they argued that the bills would make it possible to vote more than once. Staining index fingers is a common method in emerging democracies to make sure people who have voted do not return to the polls to vote again.
“This is the core of what it is to be an American, to cast a vote and have it cast only once,” said Senator Andrew P. Harris, R – Baltimore and Harford Counties, the Senate minority whip. “They figured out in Iraq how to make sure that people only vote once.”
The bill’s supporters countered that provisional ballots, which are already in use in Maryland, are not overly susceptible to fraud. Current laws require that provisional ballots be sealed, sent to the voter’s home district election board and certified before the votes are counted.
“The right to vote outweighs any small potential breach of security,” Patterson said.
The voter rights bill will also require local and state elections boards to do more to reduce voter intimidation, including placing law enforcement officers at the polling locations and establishing hotlines to report intimidation.
“Dastardly activities are taking place on Election Day and these people need our protection,” said House majority whip Anthony G. Brown, D – Prince George’s.
Many of the bills’ opponents said they agree with its principles, but argued that the timing presents problems for the State Board of Elections, which may be dealing with potentially unreliable voting machines before the upcoming elections.
Harris has been warning lately that voting machines used in the state that are manufactured by Diebold, Inc., are susceptible to tampering.
He said that if the Diebold voting machines are for some reason decertified, the board would have to acquire and install a new system by the primary elections on Sept. 12. He says it will thus be impossible for state elections officials to deal with the faulty voting machines and implement the two bills passed Tuesday.
A third veto was overturned in the House of Delegates Tuesday and will be sent to the Senate. The bill would allow voters to obtain absentee ballots without submitting a reason. “If we couple these bills together, we’re going to make Maryland the laughing stock of the country,” O’Donnell said. “This is about the sanctity of the vote. This is about the very heart of our democracy.”