NAACP fund to sue Md. on vote law Legal defense group says registration not offered with driver's license; Lawyers to file case today; State defends handling of 'motor voter,' says problem not prevalent


WASHINGTON -- A leading civil rights group plans to file a class action suit today in federal court against Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Maryland officials accusing them of failing to implement a federal law designed to make voter registration easier, attorneys have said.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund suit will charge that Maryland has not upheld the "motor voter law," which requires states to provide residents with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for a driver's license or social service benefits.

Marilyn Corbett, a spokeswoman for the Motor Vehicle Administration and for the governor, would not comment on allegations in the threatened suit, but she flatly rejected the suggestion the state had failed to implement the law.

Gene Raynor, who as administrator of the state elections board has coordinated the law's implementation at state agencies, said problems in Maryland are the exception, not the rule.

"The agencies are doing it, but when you're dealing with 2,000 clerks, one or two may miss," Raynor said. "I do not believe it is widespread at all."

The motor voter measure was signed into law in 1993 amid praise from President Clinton that it would make voter participation easier for millions of Americans. It took effect Jan. 1, 1995.

The law has helped states register more voters, but it also has produced lawsuits in several states where Republican governors have fought the measure as an "unfunded" requirement.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the law, would not evaluate the validity of the proposed suit, but a spokesman said the agency has been monitoring the controversy.

"We're aware of the suit, and we've been in discussion with Maryland and several other states to make voter registration more available," agency spokesman Myron Marlin said.

Legal Defense Fund attorneys allege Maryland agencies have not consistently provided the necessary paperwork or staff assistance to prospective registrants. They point to several anecdotal examples of the state's oversight of the law.

These attorneys also cite a Project Vote report that placed Maryland 28th out of 32 states in 1995 in terms of implementing motor voter in public service agencies.

Project Vote is a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter registration group.

The District of Columbia and numerous states have adopted a form that enables residents to register for both at the same time. Maryland also has such a form, but the Legal Defense Fund says it is not used consistently.

Judith Browne, a Silver Spring resident and a Legal Defense Fund attorney working on the case, said she was not told of her ability to register when she applied for a driver's license at the Largo MVA office in March.

She also provided a reporter with a copy of license form, which did not include a space to sign up to vote.

Browne said some other Maryland residents will discuss similar allegations of agency failings at a news conference in Largo today.

She cited the example of Sharon Jennings, who is disabled and was not given the required form when she applied for Medicaid in Hyattsville, she said.

"This fundamental right is very important to her because of her disability," Browne said. "This fundamental right would be given to her if they had implemented the law."

Agency officials said Maryland has not been lax in implementing the law.

Avon Bellamy of the state Department of Human Resources said that in many cases, people who apply for benefits have already registered to vote. During May 1996, he said, 57 percent of the 3,200 Baltimore residents who applied for benefits already were registered.

Bellamy acknowledged his agency has attempted to improve its reporting of voter registration, which state officials have previously said accounts for the low figures in the Project Vote report.

Although Bellamy knew of no specific Human Resources offices that have not implemented the law, he suggested that its implementation has not always been consistent.

"Baltimore City seems to be doing a better job" in comparison to the rest of the state, Bellamy said.

Raynor acknowledged that Maryland officials have been imperfect in the implementation, but he said the state has been accountable.

As a result of Browne's complaint, Raynor ordered an investigation into the MVA's Largo office. In a recent letter to Browne, he vowed to investigate any further reports of noncompliance.

"I believe the lady. I don't have any reason not to believe her. I don't believe it's widespread though. These are isolated instances," Raynor said.

Curtis Gans, who directs the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate and is considered an authority on election law, said the law does not significantly favor one party, although he conceded its mission of enfranchising social service recipients does tend to favor Democrats.

Penelope Bonsall, director of the Federal Election Commission's office of elections, said that other states have already been sued for motor voter violations. The Maryland suit, she said, differs from those cases because Maryland hails the law and claims to be upholding it.

Bonsall said that several other states could potentially be sued because of alleged spotty compliance.

When questioned, Browne did not seem averse to settling with the state.

"I would hope the state would settle," she said. "We are interested in seeing people registered in time to vote for the November election."

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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