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Jurist finds early voting illegal under Maryland constitution

Plan allowed ballots to be cast before elections

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Early voting in Maryland is illegal because the state's constitution allows only one day to cast ballots, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday.

Judge Ronald Silkworth sided with voters who sued over the plan to allow people to cast ballots five days before the primary and general elections, starting this year.

Silkworth ruled that early voting would be illegal because the constitution allows voting only on a single day in November, not for several days. The judge also ruled that it would be illegal to permit voters to cast ballots outside their home precincts, as allowed under the new early voting law.

``The General Assembly exceeded its constitutional authority in enacting the early voting statutes," Silkworth wrote in his opinion.

The judge issued a stay, allowing preparations for early voting to continue until the Maryland Court of Appeals hears an appeal by the state.

A hearing was expected by the end of August, according to the attorney general's office. Early voting was to be used for the first time in the state in the primary election set for Sept. 12.

Three voters who opposed early voting filed the lawsuit. Last month, Maryland's highest court rejected a separate lawsuit to delay early voting with a referendum on the question.

Silkworth quoted language in the state constitution that says voting shall be on a certain day in November, giving lawmakers no leeway to extend an election.

Early voting has been subject of intense party wrangling in Maryland over the last two years. The Democratic Legislature approved it in 2005, then Governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, vetoed it. Early voting became law this year when the Legislature overrode Ehrlich's veto.

``Early voting in and of itself is a good thing," said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. But she cited the lack of a paper trail and the fact that the Legislature also approved no-excuse absentee balloting, which she said makes early voting unnecessary.

Democrats have insisted the early voting would be secure.

``Early voting is a valued, safe, and secure resource that gives voters more opportunity and convenience to exercise their franchise in more than 30 other states across the country," Democratic spokesman David Paulson said.

One of the people who sued, Marirose Joan Capozzi of Stevensville, said after the ruling that she was delighted because she feared fraud if early voting was allowed.

``It is clearly spelled out when we can vote and how we can vote" in the state constitution, Capozzi said.

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