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Maryland lawmakers approve automatic voter registration

Maryland lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would automatically register residents to vote when they deal with certain state agencies, including when obtaining or renewing driver’s licenses.

Residents would have the ability to opt out from being registered to vote, and those who do register would be able to pick whether to join a political party or register as an unaffiliated voter.

The agencies that would have automatic voter registration include the Motor Vehicle Administration, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, local social service agencies and the Maryland Transit Administration’s mobility office.

The bill effectively changes the voter registration programs at those agencies from an “opt-in” system to an “opt-out” system, said Damon Effingham, acting director of Common Cause Maryland, which was one of the groups promoting the bill. The agencies already offer voter registration.

The House of Delegates voted 93-46 on Wednesday to approve the Secure and Accessible Registration Act, which had already cleared the state Senate on a 31-13 vote earlier this month.

Several Democrats stood and photographed the vote board as the tally lit up in the House of Delegates chamber. But not everyone was on board with the bill.

Del. Joe Cluster, a Baltimore County Republican, said he thought the bill was “useless.”

“We already ask people if they want to register to vote or not,” Cluster said. “I hope people would vote red on this bill. We pass so many bills down here and I just don’t understand why we are doing this.”

The Motor Vehicle Administration said it could implement automatic voter registration at no extra cost to taxpayers, while some of the other affected agencies said it would cost them a little more. Nonpartisan legislative analysts disagreed, arguing that the agencies could implement the program with existing resources, because they already offer voluntary voter registration.

Ten states and Washington, D.C., already have automatic voter registration, and Maryland is among at least 15 states considering the issue this year, according to the Brannen Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which promotes the policy.

The bill now heads to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk. It would take effect on July 1, 2019.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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