Schedule conflicts, work commitments, and transportation issues are just a few reasons why some voters don’t show up on Election Day. To help remedy this issue, 32 states have enacted Early In-Person (EIP) voting laws, which have been overwhelmingly favored by voters. While this trend is mainly absent in the northeastern United States, Maryland is currently test-driving its new law this week, perhaps creating a precedent for surrounding states.
“It’s a little bit of variety for the voters,” said Anthony Gutierrez, director of Maryland’s Wicomico County Board of Elections in The Daily Times. The “variety” of voting options didn’t come easy to the state, which introduced early voting laws not once, but twice over the last few years.
“The state’s first Early Voting law was struck down in a state court on grounds that it violated the Maryland Constitution,” according to a new Project Vote policy paper by election counsel, Teresa James. “In response, proponents launched a statewide referendum to place a Constitutional amendment on the ballot to permit Early Voting. The Constitutional amendment passed and, with the passage of the second EIP bill, no excuse Early in Person Voting became the law of the land in Maryland in time for the 2010 elections.”
This week’s early voting period, which precedes the Sept. 14 primary, marks the first time Marylanders will be able to cast early ballots at 46 early voting centers across the state.
Before 2008, EIP was mostly used by typical voters, that is older, educated, wealthy, and white citizens, writes James, who assesses the impact of EIP on voting behavior of young, low income, and minority voters in her report. But the 2008 presidential election proved to be a pivotal time in voter participation and use of EIP among underrepresented young and minority citizens. Overall turnout among these voters increased by as much as four percentage points since 2004. Further, Convenience Voting measures like Early In-Person and absentee voting accounted for one out of every three ballots cast in 2008.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the increased use of early voting by underrepresented populations was unique to the historic 2008 election, or if it will continue in future elections.
Despite overwhelming support from voters (72 percent voted to amend the Maryland constitution in favor of EIP in 2008), a few concerns have been expressed about the new law and its potential impact.
On Sunday, the Baltimore Sun criticized the allotment of voting centers as a “serious flaw” because “most counties have only one early-voting location,” meaning “long drives or transit rides for many voters, defeating the purpose of making voting less time-consuming.” Though the paper commends the passage of EIP, the editorial board maintains that “Maryland still has further to go in eliminating the headaches and expense of Election Day.”
Maryland partisans also express their reservations.
"From a Republican perspective, we look [at] early voting as something the Democratic legislature passed to increase turnout in their party," said Alan Rzepkowski, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee in a Capital Gazette report Tuesday. "We want to make sure everything is done fairly."
However, the Democratic Central Committee chairman, Stephen Thibodeau states: "To me, it's just a matter … (of) fundamentally giving more people a chance to vote."
Both partisans said that they would be dispatching poll-watchers to ensure “all the rules are followed,” and “no one is intimidated.” The most remarkable concern, however, is the Republican-driven fear of voter fraud. However, EIP’s susceptibility to fraud is no different from that on the typical Tuesday Election Day, and even that is scarce.
"Project Vote conducted an exhaustive nationwide survey of voter fraud allegations and found that voter fraud of all types is extremely rare, averaging eight cases per year among the millions of voters nationwide,” wrote James. “Voter impersonation and double voting, the professed concerns of Early Voting opponents, are even more rare. "
"It is the same as going in on Election Day," said Gutierrez, noting the same voting machines and verification procedures will be utilized during the early voting period.
In states with EIP in place for several years, more than 50 percent of voters choose this option. The coming weeks will tell if the same majority of Marylanders who approved EIP will capitalize on the state’s increased access to the ballot.