Early voting starts today in Maryland. As citizens across the state head to the ballot box, it is an appropriate time to reflect on everything that Maryland has done in the past few years to make it easier to vote, while so many other states around the country are making it harder.
The stakes for voting rights have never been higher. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, accelerating efforts in at least 19 states to restrict the right to vote. Governors and secretaries of state in other states are working to eliminate early voting, reduce the number of hours that polls are open, and enact restrictive laws requiring citizens to show government-issued photo IDs.
The introduction of voter identification laws echoes a darker time in American history when voters of color faced barriers at the ballot box. These efforts are designed to chill already tepid voting rates in disadvantaged and underserved communities, and they threaten to undermine our representative democracy.
Fortunately, here in Maryland, the state's leadership has taken a different approach: they have made it easier to vote. While so many states were restricting the vote, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown spearheaded legislation to expand early voting, which accounted for sixteen percent of votes cast in Maryland in 2012. This change will help working parents get to the polls and express their voice, along with the elderly, students and others who simply cannot afford to miss work on Election Day.
The state's leadership has taken other steps to expand democracy. Governor O'Malley created an online voter registration system, signed a bill to introduce same-day voter registration by 2016, restored voting rights to rehabilitated Marylanders who have completed a court-ordered sentence, secured voting rights for the mentally disabled, ensured that members of the military have enough time to cast a vote, and lowered the age for voter registration to 16.
All in all, more Marylanders now have more opportunities to vote. Our state has become a model for progressive and inclusive voting procedures at a time when so many states are moving in the other direction.
In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an address titled "Give Us the Ballot" from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Dr. King urged Congress to give everyone the right to vote. He spoke about the voter suppression efforts of the day as "a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition" and imagined a day when "we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill." Our state has come closer than perhaps any other to fulfilling Dr. King's vision of a full democracy. Now it is up to us to take advantage of the new laws and take part in the democratic process.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the former president & CEO of the NAACP; he has not endorsed anyone for governor. He is currently a Partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. His email is BenJealous@kaporcenter.org.