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Maryland legislators, including one from Harford, file rights bills aimed at increasing student, military votes

A bipartisan group of Maryland’s elected officials has pre-filed legislation in the House and Senate with the goal of giving students and active-duty military members easier access to voting resources.

Sponsored by Dels. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) and Mike Griffith (R-Harford) and Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), the legislation would allow active-duty military members to electronically register to vote and request an absentee ballot as well as make public colleges and universities formulate plans to encourage students to vote.

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On a Wednesday Zoom call, Luedtke said the legislation is one of several voting-related bills expected to appear in the legislature this session, including one that will allow Marylanders a permanent mail-in ballot option for future elections that only needs to be requested once.

“I expect that this is going to be a banner year for voting rights in the state of Maryland,” Luedtke said. “There will be a number of bills. This is one part of that that focuses more on the voter registration side of things.”

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If approved, the legislation would require public colleges and universities to designate a student vote coordinator to educate students on locations of polling places, procedures for registering to vote and all relevant deadlines. It would also allow those students an excused absence from classes to go vote, Luedtke said. There is already a legal requirement allowing workers two hours off from their jobs to go vote, Luedtke said, and it only makes sense to allow the same for busy students.

Under the legislation, schools’ student voting plans would be made available to the public on each school’s website, according to the legislation.

Private universities that collect money from the state would also be required to post voter registration links on their course registration websites — something already required of public colleges and universities that led to a “significant increase” in student registration, Luedtke said.

Luedtke said the legislation has been in the works for years and was not wholly a reaction to the difficulties Marylanders faced voting in 2020 or the results of the election itself. But Elfreth said the 2020 election has given voting-rights issues a high profile and opened the door for legislation.

“I think the urgency and the attention is there, and the policy window is now kind of more open for these kinds of issues than in past years because of the 2020 election,” Elfreth said. “I think the last year has shown that democracy is a participatory sport ... and we have to make it as easy as possible to participate.”

A similar bill was brought up last session of the General Assembly, though more tailored for students, and during discussion of the legislation, Griffith approached Luedtke and brought forward issues with armed forces personnel voting. Luedtke said it made sense, and this year’s legislation includes provisions to enable active-duty military members to vote more easily.

Griffith served in the Marine Corps in the 1990s and 2000s and knows firsthand the issues with military voting. Serving overseas detaches active-duty personnel from their communities, so their ballots arrive, they are sometimes greeted with a list of unfamiliar names and issues. Improving access to voting only encourages more participation.

“It is ease of access, and when you are in the military and you are overseas or in a different state, you are really detached from the goings-on locally,“ he said. “Anything that you can do to bridge that gap, to make it more accessible for military, can only help.”

Effectively, Maryland voters serving in the military would be allowed to use the electronic system already set up by the Department of Defense, Griffith explained. While the state does not have the authority to change federal policies, it can make voting easier for its citizens serving abroad within the established procedures.

Griffith said he was happy to be part of the bipartisan legislation. He could not speculate on its chances of passing but felt the addition of the military component would help balance the bill and endear it to a wider audience while benefiting Marylanders.

“It is important that we do our best to find opportunities to work together and to find those common grounds,” he said “I think this is one of those times.”

The legislation was supported by numerous voting rights groups around the state, including Black Girls Vote, the Maryland Military Coalition, the University System of Maryland Student Council, and Common Cause Maryland, among others.

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