By CARL STRAUMSHEIM for Capital News Service
Early voting in Maryland was meant to make the ballot box more accessible by giving voters additional chances to cast their ballots, but instead, the perceived shortcomings of the program have spawned a debate over costs, benefits and partisan bias.
Early voting turnout has been low since its introduction in 2010. Only 2.4 percent of all eligible voters cast their ballots ahead of the April 3 primary election -- roughly the same as in 2010. Compared to the 2006 election, total turnout in 2010 stayed flat, with one in two Marylanders voting, though about 6 percent of those voters cast their ballots before Election Day, according to data from the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Michael Cain, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said the presidential election and controversial referendums on same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrants will likely lead to more people taking advantage of early voting this year.
"Competitiveness matters to turnout," Cain said.
This fall, any registered voter can skip Election Day lines by voting between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1. Maryland offers no-excuse early voting, meaning a voter does not need to give a reason for missing Election Day.
But even with increased turnout, some Republicans said the law -- which locates early voting centers based on the number of registered voters in each county -- could give Democratic candidates an edge.
Frederick County is geographically the largest in the state, but with slightly fewer than 150,000 registered voters, it's only allowed to run one early voting center. Howard County, which passes the cutoff point of 150,000 registered voters, gets three centers spread across an area one-third the size of Frederick County.
The populous and traditionally Democratic counties abutting Baltimore and Washington, D.C., will all have the maximum of five centers, cutting down on both lines and travel times.
Delegate Michael Hough, a Republican whose district covers parts of Frederick and Washington counties, said the law limits the number of early voting centers in counties where Republican voters are in the majority.
"It would be like if Ohio only had early voting in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Of course it would help the Democrats," Hough said. "If somebody lives up in Emmitsburg on the Pennsylvania border, they're not going to drive a half-hour down to the city of Frederick to vote."
A bipartisan group of state senators, led by Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick, introduced a bill in 2011 to allow counties with fewer than 150,000 registered voters to run up to three early voting centers. The bill was never brought to a vote.
"If the leadership in Annapolis is serious about increasing turnout, they should allow for more voting locations," Hough said. "Why not let the county decide how many early voting locations to have?"
Delegate Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, who introduced the original early voting bill along with three other Democratic delegates, called Hough's comments "legitimate criticism."
"While we have invested in early voting, we can't make it so that every single person can vote early right next to their house," said Cardin, chairman of the election law subcommittee. "However, we in the legislature have certainly heard the complaints, and I am very sympathetic to the issue."
Cardin said future changes to Maryland's election code should not only draw in eligible voters who choose not to vote -- like a simplified registration process and increased access to absentee ballots -- but also make voting more convenient for those who do.
"It's a long-term process of constantly improving the voting system," Cardin said.
Cardin said this election could provide pointers on how to tweak early voting, but that increased turnout itself could be a sign of approval from Maryland voters.
"If we have 10 percent of the people voting early, it is a very defensible public policy," Cardin said.
Critics of early voting have also pointed to its burden on local governments: $2 million, according to a 2011 analysis by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services. But those costs aren't necessarily linked to how many early voting centers a county has to run.
Montgomery County, which has more than half-a-million registered voters, only spends about $7,500 to run its five early voting centers by using county-owned buildings and shifting some employees who would have otherwise worked on Election Day, a spokeswoman for the local Board of Elections said.
"Cost is always an issue, ... but I think when people argue that it's a waste of money, I just don't see that yet. I don't think there a strong argument out there that says that," Cain said.
Thirty-two states now allow early voting, but legislatures in 31 states have also passed laws requiring voters to show identification at the polls in November. Some states, like Pennsylvania, have enacted controversial photo identification laws that have sparked legal battles over voter suppression. In Virginia, however, a voter only has to present a copy of a recent utility bill.
Maryland does not require identification to vote. To register, voters only need to give the last four digits of their Social Security number and sign a form under penalty of perjury. At the poll, voters state their name, address and date of birth, which is verified by an election judge, said Donna Duncan, director of the election management division of the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Because so many states are experimenting with access to the ballot box, Cain said it's too early to conclude how early voting affects turnout, or if it can benefit one party over another.
"If you make voting more convenient for people, it's going to help voters get to the polls and actually vote," Cain said. "In order to make sure everyone votes, I would want some additional early voting centers in rural areas."