By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
12:20 PM EDT, October 10, 2012
Until a few weeks ago, University of Maryland junior Tali Alter was registered to vote in her home state of Illinois.
But the 21-year-old psychology major was eager to cast a ballot in this state in favor of same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants. With a few keystrokes and a click of a mouse, Alter registered to vote online through a newly created university website.
"It took me less than a minute to fill out," said Alter, a member of the College Park campus' student government. "In this day and age, most people spend most of their time online, so it's more convenient."
Alter is among the more than 1,000 students to register using their student identification information through a university-run website. The site, which was created by College Park officials and student government members, enables students to register to vote online — even if they are seeking to vote in this state for the first time.
College Park officials believe the website is the first in the country that allows students to register through a university-managed page. The students' data are checked against online records and forwarded to the state board of elections. About 1,200 students signed up to vote through the site in the first eight days of its launch.
Allison Agazzi, president of the university's College Republicans, said that her group has joined in the efforts to register students online.
"We're very happy that so many more college students will be able to vote now," said Agazzi, a senior government and politics major. "With our generation geared to doing everything online, I think it will increase the number of students that will be able to vote."
Student government leaders hatched the idea of an online voter registration system after noticing that students were having a hard time filling out paper registration forms.
"People were missing a thing or two" on the forms, said Zach Cohen, chair of the student council for the University of Maryland system. "People were having problems returning the form to the board of elections because it required a stamp and frankly, most students don't have a book of stamps sitting around."
"We register for classes online. We check our grades online. We submit our homework online. We do banking online," said Cohen, a 20-year-old senior from Towson. "I didn't use a stamp until this year when I had to send thank-you notes for letters of recommendations."
Cohen, a government and politics major, came up with the idea for the website while serving last year as chair of governmental affairs for the College Park student body. He stumbled upon a bill to authorize online voter registration that had been introduced by Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Del. Ronald S. George, an Anne Arundel County Republican.
Cohen began lobbying for the bill, which allowed large public institutions including colleges and universities to register voters online if they already had signatures on file. It passed and went into effect this year.
Cardin, who chairs the house election law subcommittee, said he began pushing to expand access to online voter registration after discussing it with officials from the Pew Center on the States.
Maryland is one of eight states — four blue states and four red states — to participate in a Pew pilot project to purge those ineligible to vote from voter rolls while expanding access to registration, Cardin said. As part of the project, Maryland was required to allow voters to register online, he said.
Mary Cramer Wagner, the state board of election's director of voter registration, said Maryland's online registration system went live in July. Residents who have a Maryland driver's license or an identification card issued by the Motor Vehicle Administration are able to sign up to vote through the board's website, she said.
Since a signature is needed to sign up to vote, the online system links the application to a signature on file with the MVA, Wagner said.
College Park is the other institution besides the elections board to offer online registration, Wagner said. Other public colleges and universities have yet to start such programs.
"I think it's a great opportunity for students to get registered," said Wagner. "It certainly gives them no excuse to not be registered."
Don Kettl, dean of College Park's School of Public Policy, said the online system has already had "an enormous impact."
Students at the campus are engaged in the state's ballot questions, particularly those pertaining to same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for immigrants brought to this country illegally as children, and expanded gambling.
"Enthusiasm is building, and not just around the presidential race," said Ketl. "That's really encouraging, because it means that they're not just paying attention to the top headlines, but they're also paying attention to other issues in Maryland."
Agazzi said the College Republicans voted to not support the Dream Act, which would enable illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, but has not taken a stance on same-sex marriage.
"We're kind of split on that," she said.
Early adulthood is a key time to draw citizens into the political process, Ketl said.
"If we can get people into the habit of good citizenship when they're young, they will continue it when they get older," he said.
Agazzi said even though most College Park students skew liberal, she's glad to see the general enthusiasm on campus for voting in the coming election.
"I would rather have someone register to vote and show what they believe in than sitting by the sidelines," Agazzi said. "What's the point of being a citizen in our country if you can't use your most important right — the right to vote?"
Registering to vote
Tuesday, Oct. 16, is the deadline to register to vote in Maryland. You can register online or download a registration form at elections.state.md.us/voter_registration/. To register online, you must have a Maryland driver's license or a state-issued ID.
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