Our view: A constitutional amendment to allow Marylanders to register to vote and then cast their ballots on Election Day deserves their support
Two headlines of recent days may have caught attention from those looking toward the upcoming general election in Maryland. First is the record voter registration numbers — with 3,992,451 people registered to vote, the most ever in the state. The other is that Tuesday was the last day to register to vote if you plan to go the polls on Nov. 6. What ought to also be noted is another number — 500,000 — which is the estimated number of Marylanders who are eligible to vote but who are still not registered.
For all the complaints about voting, including the wildly overstated risk of voter fraud, this lack of full participation in our most sacred democratic institution is deeply troubling. Some individuals elect not to got to the polls at all, and that is their right. But there is also a need for government to meet the potential electorate halfway and make the act of voting as convenient as possible without, of course, opening it up to abuse. Maryland and many other states have made important strides in this direction. Motor voter laws that link registration with driver’s licensing or vehicle registration, early voting and online registration have proven helpful, if not exactly game-changing.
This year, Maryland voters get an opportunity to embrace a modest, but significant, reform to the voter registration process by endorsing Question 2, a constitutional amendment that will allow same-day voter registration on Election Day. That may seem like a leap from the tradition of closing registration weeks before Election Day, but it actually isn’t. Maryland already offers same-day voter registration during early voting, which this year runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 1, and it has proven to be a success.
It works like this. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration provides lists to the state election board of individuals who are eligible to vote (who have through MVA driver’s license or the vehicle registration process proven themselves to be at least 18 years old and a legal Maryland resident). The state’s 79 early voting centers are linked together electronically so that if an individual shows up in one location to register and vote, all locations are made aware of that event. Even individuals who haven’t had any contact with the MVA can still register and vote — if they provide sufficient proof of their identity and legal residency.
This is not rocket science. A myriad of states offer same-day voter registration, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, Wyoming and the District of Columbia. The most unusual permutation of this is to offer same-day registration only on early voting dates. Only one other state (North Carolina) has done that. How would Maryland handle same-day registration? One presumes it would look a lot like early voting same-day registration, but the specifics have yet to be worked out. At the earliest, the option won’t be available to voters until the 2020 election.
Of course, there are bound to be partisan voices who will rail against same-day registration and this constitutional amendment. Its approval by the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year fell almost precisely along party lines. Republicans learned long ago that their candidates and causes are most likely to succeed at the polls when voter turnout is low. As a result, GOP leaders are deeply invested in keeping the bar to voting set as high as possible. Older, disabled, lower income, minority and public transportation-dependent voters are too likely to vote Democratic to interest them much. Voter suppression efforts in other states may be much worse (take the recent purging of voter rolls in Georgia that appears aimed at African Americans, for example) but Republican intransigence to conveniencing Maryland voters is not their proudest moment either.
If there’s any criticism to be made of Question 2, it might be this: There’s no guarantee that it will have an especially large impact on turnout. In the 2016 election, the state with the highest voter turnout was Maine with 72.7 percent of eligible adults voting. The lowest was Hawaii with 47.3 percent. Both are same-day registration states. And Maryland? A respectable 14th of the 50 states with a 65.8 percent turnout rate that can only be improved by making it easier to vote.