August 8, 2010

New system lets Md. absentee voters print out their ballots, even overseas

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By Megan Poinski

Megan@MarylandReporter.com

A new system launched last week by the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship will allow Maryland voters, even those overseas or in the military, to access and print out absentee ballots online. The topic became a small side issue in the race for governor last week.

Maryland has been e-mailing absentee ballots to people who requested them since 2006, said Nikki Trella, election reform director for the State Board of Elections. “What we wanted to do was to integrate this new system into the voter look-up site, and allow them to use it to securely get their absentee ballots,” Trella said.

The State Board of Elections has a standing contract with the university center to operate the Maryland Election Center – a user-friendly website with information about voting and campaign finance, as well as a database that will verify voter registration and tell users where to cast their ballots.

The initial e-mail ballots in 2006 were individually typed up and sent out. If 50 people in different districts and of different parties wanted to vote in a primary election, local boards prepared and sent 50 different individual ballots to each of them.

Site supposed to be secure, easy to use

Michael Charlebois, coordinator of CAPC, said that they worked closely with the State Board of Elections and the University of Maryland’s Office of Information Technology to put together a site that was secure and easy to use.

The new system uses technology to make the old way of getting absentee ballots easier – as well as making online absentee ballots easier to handle by elections staff at local boards.

To use the system, a voter first needs to go to the State Board of Elections website and download an application to vote absentee.  Once completed, the application can be e-mailed, faxed, mailed, or hand-delivered to the voter’s local elections office.

When the application is processed, the voter will receive an e-mail with a unique passcode, which will be used to access the absentee ballot. To get it, the voter needs to log in to the Maryland Election Center’s voter verification system – which requires a first name, last name, zip code and birth date. Once the voter is logged into the system, he or she will be able to input the passcode and then access his or her ballot.

After using the interactive ballot form on the computer to vote, the voter will be able to print out the absentee ballot, along with a declaration verifying his or her identity that must be signed, Charlebois said. The envelope that the system prints out includes customized addresses – both for the local board of elections site where the ballot needs to go, and the voter’s return address. Under federal law, if the voter is in the military or overseas, the envelope will also include prepaid postage.

The envelope will also have a unique bar code, which will be scanned once the absentee ballot gets to the elections office. Charlebois said that the bar code ensures that only one vote from each voter is counted.

The new system does not save money, but Trella said it does free up personnel. Compiling and counting individually typed e-mail ballots was always a chore, she said; one county had a person whose sole job was dealing with them. The new system automates much of that process.

Charlebois said the system’s biggest benefit is the way it makes absentee voting easier for those in the military or overseas.  CAPC has partnered with the Overseas Vote Foundation to get the message out about the new system.

“This makes it a much easier system for them,” Charlebois said.

Ehrlich makes an issue

On Thursday, former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich complained that Maryland was short changing members of the armed forces by seeking a waiver from the federal law requiring absentee ballots be sent to military 45 days before an election. That is now impossible with only 47 days between the Sept. 14 primary and the Nov. 2 general election.

State Democratic Party Executive Director Travis Tazelaar on Friday shot back with a statement saying Ehrlich and other Republicans had opposed changing the primary to an earlier date when he was governor. The new e-mail system would help the troops get their ballots sooner, Tazelaar said.