A few weeks after his election, Donald Trump tweeted one of his most pernicious lies: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Such wildly exaggerated claims of voter fraud have long been used to justify voter suppression, which disproportionately targets people of color.
Last summer, in moves widely seen as preludes to voter roll purges, Trump’s “Voter Fraud” Commission and Justice Department demanded that Maryland turn over voters’ personal data and provide detailed information about the maintenance of its voter rolls. Although the commission has been disbanded, Mr. Trump continues to falsely assert that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election and his voter fraud investigation carries on at the Department of Homeland Security.
This year, Maryland has the opportunity fight back against federal voter suppression efforts. The General Assembly is considering bills that would establish automatic voter registration and allow voters to register on Election Day. By keeping the voter rolls up to date, facilitating voter registration and expanding the electorate, these policies would counteract the Trump administration’s voter suppression agenda and protect our voting rights, while ensuring that the voting process is secure.
The first set of bills (House Bill 152 and Senate Bill 1048) would allow state agencies to register eligible voters automatically, unless voters choose not to be registered. This simple switch from an opt-in to an opt-out system of voter registration would not only lead to new registrations but would also improve voter turnout. In 2016, Oregon became the first state to implement automatic voter registration and immediately experienced the largest increase in voter turnout of any state in the country. Nearly half (44 percent) of people who were automatically registered voted in 2016, and almost all (95 percent) of those were first-time voters.
By updating voters’ addresses when they interact with participating state agencies, automatic voter registration would also improve the accuracy of the voter rolls. People are more likely to keep their addresses up-to-date with agencies such as the Motor Vehicle Administration and local departments of social services, which are relevant to their everyday lives, than they are to notify the Board of Elections when they move. These automatic updates would help election officials maintain accurate address information for young, low-income and homeless people, who move frequently.
The second set of bills (House Bill 532 and Senate Bill 594) under consideration in Annapolis would give voters the opportunity to change the Maryland Constitution to allow Marylanders to register at the polls on Election Day. Under current law, Maryland voters must register at least three weeks before Election Day, a restriction that lowers turnout by preventing voters from registering when they are most likely to be paying attention to politics. As policy analyst Sean McElwee tweeted a few hours before August’s solar eclipse, “If you’re frantically trying to buy eclipse glasses right now, you’ll understand why 30 day registration deadlines reduce voter turnout.” In 2014, voter turnout in states with Election Day registration was more than 10 percent higher than in states without it. And, if the Trump administration does succeed in unfairly purging eligible Maryland voters from the rolls, Election Day registration would allow them to re-register and vote on Election Day, without having to cast provisional ballots.
Automatic voter registration and Election Day registration would address not only the current threat of federal voter suppression, but also the long-standing problem of low voter turnout. Both policies have proven especially effective at increasing turnout among young voters, voters of color and low-income voters, who are often underrepresented in the electorate. In 2014, less than half of eligible Marylanders voted in the midterm election. Baltimore City had the lowest rate of voter turnout in the state, with just over a third of eligible voters casting a ballot. We must strive to create a culture in which every eligible citizen is registered to vote and voting is the norm, not the exception. The positive effects of such a transformation would last long after the current administration has left the White House. The General Assembly must help us begin that process this year by passing bills that set up automatic voter registration and pave the way for Election Day registration.
Alexandra Neuhaus-Follini (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of Indivisible Baltimore. Ateira Griffin (email@example.com) is a director of civic engagement in Councilman Zeke Cohen's office and lead organizer for Baltimore Rising.