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Last week the Republican national convention nominated Mitt Romney to be its presidential candidate. This week the Democrats convened to nominate Barack Obama.

None of this comes as a surprise, but now it is official. The general election season is under way.

Pardon Marylanders who believed it already was in full force, given the television and direct mail advertising surrounding the recent special session of the General Assembly and a proposed Prince Georgeís County casino.

Backers and opponents of the casino spent more than $1 million on mass media advertising in the weeks prior to the special session, which was held last month. Who was behind a good chunk of the advertising, however, remains hazy.

Itís widely assumed competing gaming interests were bankrolling the campaigns. One group paying for the pro-gambling ads was linked to The Peterson Cos., which owns National Harbor in Prince Georgeís. And an MGM Resorts spokesman told The (Baltimore) Sun that his company, which would run a National Harbor casino, also contributed to the cost of pro-casino advertising.

But the list of financial contributors remains largely undisclosed because the two sides use tax-exempt organizations that legally can keep the names secret.

The lack of donor transparency probably will gain more attention in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

The pro- and anti-gambling forces are likely to step up their messages directly to the voters, who through a referendum on the November ballot have the final say on expanded gaming in Maryland.

In addition, voters can expect a huge influx of spending on broadcast advertising surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage, another general election ballot question.

Supporters of same-sex marriage say they can predict what the opponents will say in the expected ads, similar to what happened in California. Part of the message will be that if the referendum passes, schoolchildren will be taught about gay marriage in class. The supporters say this not true. They also predict that the ads will inveigh that clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages against their religion, but the ballot language makes clear that they would not.

Another ballot cause that could spur ad spending is the Dream Act, which would allow some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition in Maryland. Emotions run high on both sides of the issue.

And, a perhaps less-contentious, but still important, statewide ballot question concerns the recently approved congressional redistricting map.

Meanwhile, in St. Maryís County, the long-running contest for circuit court judge between David Densford and Joseph Stanalonis, which has been going on since last winter, will heat up again before it is finally settled in November. Three school board members will also be elected.

With all the hot-button statewide issues and a presidential election thrown into the mix, the potential for overblown assertions and claims, particularly in ads, is high. Voters who donít do any homework risk being lost. More so than in most elections, they face an awesome responsibility this year.