Md. leaders consider 'universal' voting registration

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
What if the government registered you to vote unless you said, "no thanks"?

Maryland's top Democrats are looking at legislation that would automatically put every eligible state resident on the voting rolls, abandoning the traditional registration system.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch say they are seriously considering putting their weight behind a "universal voter registration" plan. If a change were approved, Maryland would join a small number of state legislatures, all led by Democrats, that passed laws to register people who did not take the initiative to register.

The policy would add hundreds of thousands of voters to rolls here — and faces deep objections from the Maryland Republican Party.

"This is all about the Democrats finding new voters. This is a joke," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the state GOP. "God forbid they actually go out there and register people to vote."

In Oregon, the first state to pass such a law, any eligible voter with a driver's license will be registered and sent a ballot by mail at election time. In California, eligible voters renewing a driver's license will be asked whether they want to opt out of registering to vote. If not, they'll be put on the rolls.

The proposal in Maryland could go further, culling information from several government databases to create a list of people who are eligible to vote and signing them up if they're not already registered. Those new voters would be notified that they could opt out if they wish.

While Miller and Busch have not made a final decision on which issues they will push when the General Assembly convenes in January, both said universal registration is a top contender.

"Certainly, access to voting is a leadership priority," Busch said in an interview. "I'm in favor of as much access to voting as possible. It's the one great franchise that every citizen and every Marylander should exercise."

Miller, like Busch a Democrat, said, "I'm for any and all legislation that increases voter participation."

Similar "opt-out" programs have been used to drive up participation rates for organ donation and retirement savings accounts. While it is too soon to tell whether being automatically registered makes it more likely someone would vote, supporters predict it will.

"I think the answer is very likely to be yes," said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "Once people get on the voter rolls, the people who want you to vote get activated."

Universal voting became law in Oregon and California this year on party-line votes. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a universal voting bill passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature.

"I don't think that people ought to be automatically registered to vote," Christie said in June. "Is it really too much to ask someone to fill out a form?"

Cluster said the proposal oversteps the role of government. Choosing to stay out of the democratic process, he said, is a right.

"It's a right not to register to vote. People have the right to not drive. People have the right not to own firearms," Cluster said. "If people want to register to vote, they can register to vote."

Voter rolls swollen with uninterested voters, he said, could make the state vulnerable to fraud because scores of people who don't plan to vote would be registered to do so.

Gov. Larry Hogan's spokesman declined to take a position on the merits of universal registration. But he said the governor would review every proposal passed by the legislature in part with an eye toward how much it would cost.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings of Baltimore County questioned whether the proposal is necessary, pointing out that people can easily register online, when getting a driver's license, or through voter registration drives.

"It's a simple form to fill out," Jennings said. "I don't see why it's a big deal to have people register to vote. Every person has the right to vote, but every voter has to do their due diligence to ensure they educate themselves on the issues and those they are voting for. Requiring people to register to vote by filling out a single-page form is a simple way to ensure the voters are dedicated enough to do their part."

An aide to Miller said the proposal would likely be modeled after a bill written by state Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"You're grabbing the universe of people who are eligible to vote and registering them," Manno said of his proposal.

Relying primarily on the driver's license system to reach potential voters leaves out many people — particularly the poor and those in cities — who do not have licenses, Manno said.

His proposal would require not only the Motor Vehicle Administration but also social services agencies and the state's health exchange to automatically forward to elections officials data about anyone age 16 or older who is a Maryland resident and a citizen. Elections officials would be responsible for sifting through the data to determine whether those people would be 18 by Election Day and otherwise eligible to vote, much the way they currently process applications to vote.

Under Manno's proposal, voters would be notified they have been registered. Those who did not want to be would have 21 days to inform elections officials.

"Ours is as close to 'universal' as we think we could get," Manno said.

He dismissed the argument that people need to take the initiative to be registered.

"People either have a right to vote or they don't," he said. "It's government's job to make people's lives easier and better, not throw up barriers to exercising their rights."

In the House, Democratic Del. Eric G. Luedtke of Montgomery County is championing a slightly different approach. Instead of automatically registering people, workers at the MVA and social services agencies would be required to tell people they will be registered to vote unless they would like to opt out.

Luedtke said that seemingly subtle difference may avoid potential legal problems with Manno's method, which Luedtke said could possibly jeopardize green card holders' immigration status by inadvertently registering them as voters.

Regardless of the approach, Luedtke said, the state can develop a more secure, more inclusive system than relying on volunteers with clipboards at voter registration drives.

"The current way we do registration is a mess," he said. "You have someone out in front of a Safeway."

ecox@baltsun.com

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