Early voting in Maryland is illegal because the state's constitution allows only one day of voting, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday.
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 early voting would be illegal because the constitution allows voting only on a single day in November, not for several days. Silkworth also ruled that it would be illegal to allow voters to cast ballots outside their home precincts, as was the plan 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 state planned to appeal, but Friday's ruling put in doubt voting procedures for Maryland's Sept. 12 primary and Nov. 7 general election. With less than four weeks before the first early voting was to begin, the likelihood of voting early was uncertain.
The administrator of Maryland's elections, Linda Lamone, said work to get ready for early voting would proceed until an appeals court decides the matter.
"As a practical matter, based on the advice of counsel, we are going to going to continue the process of preparing for early voting," she said.
Three Queen Anne's County 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 rejected state arguments that voters may be allowed to vote in precincts outside their own during an early voting period.
He also 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. At one point in his 18-page ruling, Silkworth chided lawmakers for "inartful drafting" of the bills.
A lawyer for the legislature, Robert Zarnoch, said state attorneys were surprised that Silkworth wouldn't allow early voting even for primaries, which aren't scheduled in the state constitution.
"Nothing in the constitution deals with the primaries. They are created by the legislature. I think we were surprised by that," Zarnoch said.
Early voting has been subject of intense party wrangling here over the last two years. The Democratic legislature approved it in 2005, then Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich vetoed it. Early voting became law this year when the legislature overrode Ehrlich's veto.
Pros and cons
Democrats have argued that early voting is a legitimate way to make voting more convenient. Republicans countered that early voting could be susceptible to fraud because Maryland voters do not have to show a picture ID before voting.
"Early voting in and of itself is a good thing. It's the way it was done," said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. She cited the lack of a paper trail in Maryland 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, said Capozzi, who owns a construction firm.
The effect of the ruling will be in doubt until the state's Court of Appeals decides the matter, said Donald F. Norris, political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"We'll have to wait until the big court makes its decision," he said.