ANNAPOLIS – Senate Democrats approved a series of changes to Maryland’s election laws late Wednesday, despite objections from Republicans who predicted that such measures would increase election fraud.
“In the last 70 days, we have changed our way of voting completely,” Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, R – Howard, said on the Senate floor. “We used to laugh about vote early, vote often. Well, the potential is definitely there.”
Schrader offered one of 11 Republican amendments in hopes of either changing the Democrat-sponsored bills before the Senate or current state election laws. All the amendments were rejected in party-line votes.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D – St. Mary’s, said the Legislature’s changes to election law are intended to keep Marylanders from being disenfranchised.
“What we’re trying to do with this, and a lot of these other bills that we have passed, is to make sure that that election is accessible to everyone that wants to vote,” Dyson said.
One of the bills passed by the Senate was the so-called Voter Bill of Rights, which mandates the creation of separate polling places for large college campuses, allows early voting on campuses and establishes electronic poll books intended to keep people from voting more than once.
The House version of the bill has now passed both chambers of the General Assembly. If the House accepts Senate amendments to the bill, it will become law. If not, a conference committee will work out the differences.
The Senate also passed a bill to establish regulations for how local boards of election determine whether an applicant can become a registered voter and how much notice the boards would have to give voters prior to changes in precinct boundaries or voting registries.
However, the bill only applies to jurisdictions of the state where the median income is below $40,000 a year and less than 60 percent of the population own their residences.
Senate Republicans said the bill essentially creates two different sets of election laws.
“This whole bill is wrong,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, R – Frederick. “To try to create a separate system where Baltimore County is held to one standard, and perhaps the city is held to a different [standard].”
While the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, D – Baltimore, acknowledged that the bill could be interpreted as creating different election standards, she maintained that the bill’s aim is “protecting voters” who have been historically disenfranchised.
“Voting for this bill says I believe that the fundamental building block of democracy shall not be abridged,” Gladden said.
Senate Republicans also expressed opposition to the so-called Voter Bill of Rights, which seems to be on a track to the governor’s desk. The bill establishes electronic poll books in hopes of preventing voter fraud.
Senate Minority Whip, Andrew P. Harris, R – Baltimore County said the electronic poll books mandated in the bill did not do enough to prevent fraud, and pointed out that the bill requires only a countywide electronic poll book system, not a statewide system.
Republicans proposed a number of amendments that would have changed both the legislation before them and current election law.
Among the amendments proposed were measures to require voters to present photo identification, delay any early voting provision until 2008 and even overturn a bill passed earlier in the session that allowed voters to file provisional ballots anywhere in the state of Maryland.
Dyson said if voters were not able to use provisional ballots statewide, many would be unable to vote.
“I did talk to the State Board [of Elections] this morning . . . and they indicate to me as many as 8,000 people could be disenfranchised if an amendment like this were to pass,” Dyson said.
Republicans were skeptical.
“I have no idea how they could come up with that estimate,” Harris said.
Harris pointed out that there were no reports of widespread disenfranchisement in the last election, when voters were not allowed to file provisional ballots statewide.
Harris also said that statewide provisional ballots violate the Maryland Constitution, which prohibits people from voting outside of the county in which they live.
“We made a mistake on the provisional ballot law, because we didn’t read the constitution first,” Harris said.
In a letter to Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R – Somerset, who inquired about the constitutionality of statewide provisional ballots, the attorney general’s office said the statewide ballots were constitutional.
Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch said in the letter that the constitutional prohibition did not apply because it was “aimed at fraudulent voting behavior not legislation legitimately aimed at voter convenience.”
Earlier in the session, the General Assembly overrode vetoes of two election bills that had been passed in last year’s session of the Legislature. These measures required some polls in each district to open five days before Election Day, establish hotlines where voters can report intimidation and allow voters to file provisional ballots statewide – the measure that came under fire Wednesday. -30- 03