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April 23, 2007

General Assembly Journal 2007 - Volume 13

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week, we spent some time examining what didn't get done regarding the state budget. This week, we'll examine some policy successes and blunders of the 423rd General Assembly.

Election Law:

Instead of fixing the state's fiscal problems, the majority made it easier to fix future elections. Maryland is now the first state in the nation to sign onto the National Popular Vote Initiative, a movement that will require any state that signs on to pledge all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national presidential popular vote. Growing out of the Democrat's anger over George W. Bush's victory in Florida in 2000, this national popular vote scheme would have prevented the recount and court review of the 2000 election.

Oddly, given the results of the 2004 presidential election, all of Maryland's electoral votes would have gone to President Bush, in spite of the fact that he lost the state popular by a margin of 3-1. House of Delegates' Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) and the Democrat's made it seem like an urgent priority that this bill pass, even though national election experts doubt that the required number of other states will sign on before the next year's election.

Democrats also rushed through an acceleration of the presidential primary to February 12. According to the myth-makers, moving up our primary means that more presidential candidates will come to Maryland to court our limited number of electoral votes. What a load!

Remember the whole early voting fiasco of two years ago? The legislature rammed through a bill to force local elections boards to offer early voting precincts up to six days before the actual Election Day.

Democrats argue that creating extra opportunities to vote will increase voting, although Maryland voters can vote using an absentee ballot if they cannot make it to the polls.

Following the passage of the early voting bill, then Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., made good on his promise to veto the bill. His veto message expressed serious concern for the proposed method, singling out the scheme to locate almost all of the early voting precincts in primarily Democrat registration districts.

In a blatant exercise of their legislative muscle, House and Senate majority party leaders rallied the votes necessary to override Governor Ehrlich's veto.

The stakes on this issue were so high that the state GOP energized their membership to sign petitions and educate the public on the issue. Another group immediately filed a lawsuit to stop the early voting mechanism. Former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran assured his cronies that the bill would stand constitutional muster, a sure sign of a troubled road ahead.

The courts agreed with Governor Ehrlich in the end, ruling the method unconstitutional and overturning the work of the Democrats. Never a group to accept defeat gracefully, Speaker Busch, Senate President Thomas V. (Mike) Miller (D., Prince George's/Calvert) and their team introduced an early voting constitutional amendment bill this session. Using the "if the courts won't let us, we'll circumvent them" theory, the constitutional amendment passed both chambers on party line votes.

So, your ballot in the 2008 presidential election will include a ballot question on early voting in future elections. Anticipate a slew of advertising, funded by organized labor, pro-immigrant groups, and progressive organizations. No one will ever address the real question, which is: Why do we need formal early voting precincts when any voter (felon, petty criminal, or even just a regular voter) could cast an absentee ballot in Maryland without an excuse?

One of the groups that will benefit from the easier access to voting will be felons who serve their court-ordered sentence. A bill passed the General Assembly this year to restore voting rights to felons. Peel back the onion to see why this group needed to have access to the ballot box. Ex-cons and felons have had their voting rights restored in other states.

When they do get their right to vote restored, guess which party felons support by a wide margin. Hint: It's not the Republican Party!

In spite of this rush to create access to early voting in areas populated by mostly Democrat voters, and setting aside the needs of all those aspiring felon-voters, one thing that both Democrats and Republicans could agree on was that the system for collecting votes is broken.

A bill passed both chambers on a wide bi-partisan basis to return to a paper-based system. Voters seem to like the new technology touch-screen voting system, but almost everyone agrees that they'd be more comfortable knowing there was a paper record of their vote.

The state Elections Board and staff expressed concern over spending millions on a paper ballot, following so closely on the heels of the huge expense of the touch-screen computers.

In order to increase the comfort of the Elections Board, while also signaling to voters that their message was received, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring a paper-based system in time for the 2010 state election, on the condition that funding can be identified.

That's not likely given the severity of the fiscal crisis, though.

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