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Maryland Dems: Extend Absentee Deadline

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Top Maryland Democratic lawmakers are urging Gov. Robert Ehrlich to push for an extension of the deadline for voters to postmark absentee ballots — the latest group to call for an extra day because of the record number of requests for the mail-in ballots.

In a letter to Ehrlich dated Sunday, the group asked the governor to instruct his appointees on the Maryland Board of Elections to allow ballots postmarked on election day to be counted. The current deadline is Monday. The letter cites shortages in absentee ballots because of the high number of requests this year.

"Equity, fairness and common sense dictate an immediate modification to the regulations that govern the canvass of these ballots. Failure to take such action risks the disenfranchisement of many eligible Maryland voters," the letter states. It was signed by Maryland's two U.S. senators; all the Democratic representatives except Ben Cardin; and Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch.

A spokesman for Ehrlich said the governor has not taken a position on the request.

"It's entirely a decision for the members of the Board of Election," Henry Fawell said.

In October, Ehrlich himself had sent a letter to the head of the state board of elections saying that a shortage of absentee ballots at county election boards was approaching crisis proportions. In September, Ehrlich had encouraged voters to cast paper absentee ballots in the general election after a swath of problems at the polls during the September primary, the Washington Post reported.

In a letter to Linda Lamone, the administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections, Ehrlich said that his office had received numerous telephone calls and e-mails from voters who hadn't received absentee ballots two or three weeks after filing their applications.

Diebold Election Systems Inc., the company that manufactures Maryland's electronic voting machines, was to print 1.6 million paper ballots for the general election amid worries by some that the machines could suffer the same problems as in September's primary.

Ehrlich had said the administrator was "disenfranchising voters due to Diebold's failure to deliver in a timely manner the absentee ballots to the local boards of elections."

As of Monday morning, 191,404 voters had requested absentee ballots and 94,290 ballots had been returned with votes. But some ballots weren't mailed to voters until Saturday, which State Board Elections Administrator Linda Lamone said was "a problem."

In a canvass of the election board Friday, the three Republican members appointed by Ehrlich said they opposed an extension, according to Gilles Burger, the Republican board chairman. One Democrat did not take a position while the other did not reply to an e-mail Burger sent asking her opinion.

Burger said the board was concerned about making last-minute changes in a year that has already included a series of new regulations. If voters have not received a ballot, they can vote with a provisional ballot on Election Day at their local board of election or precinct, he said.

"I think we have this covered," he said.

There were no plans for the board to convene Monday to reconsider, Lamone said, making an extension unlikely without a court order.

On Saturday, a coalition of attorneys' groups and civil rights organizations said they would consider going to court Monday if the State Board of Elections didn't extend the deadline.

The record number of ballots follows a change in election law this year that makes it easier for voters to cast absentee ballots. Voters no longer have to provide a reason for their request.

Several top lawmakers also have urged voters to use absentee ballots following human errors and glitches with the state's electronic voting system during September's primary. The loudest voice was Ehrlich, who voted absentee last week and is in a tight race for re-election.