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Defending democracy at the ballot box

An Army vet says automatic voter registration would benefit everyone, but particularly those in the military.
An Army vet says automatic voter registration would benefit everyone, but particularly those in the military. (Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore Sun)

On September 11, 2001, I watched on live television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. That moment fomented in me a desire to serve, part of my DNA that I inherited from my father who was a Vietnam veteran and my mother who cared for the sick as a registered nurse. I enlisted in the Army because I realized that American democracy, and the freedom it represents, is fragile.

In the Army, I saw first-hand how true that is. After returning home in 2009 from a tour in Mosul, Iraq, I was catching up with a friend after a workday at Fort Hood in Texas, when a colleague ran up to us and yelled that there was an active shooter on base. I sprinted the 100 yards and entered a building to blood–covered walls and the metallic stench of deposited munitions. I helped carry the wounded to medics and comforted them as they fought for survival.

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It’s a day that I’ll never forget.

Many of us join the military for our own reasons, but one thing we all have in common is the commitment to something bigger than each of us, a higher calling to the greater good. We understand that American democracy needs to be protected.

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But the protection I’m concerned about now is not what you think.

The Maryland Senate has passed a bill that would create automatic voter registration for people who are eligible and agree to be registered.

As Americans, our right to vote is a responsibility and a privilege. It’s one that dates back to our country’s beginnings, and it’s something that’s easy to take for granted until it’s exposed as vulnerable.

Since the 2016 election, the security of our elections has come into focus in an alarming way. Foreign hackers targeted voter rolls in 21 states, including right here in Maryland, in an effort to manipulate our elections and influence the government that we are supposed elect ourselves.

Fortunately, many of our leaders in Annapolis answered that call and proposed a bill to ensure our state government has the tools it needs to keep our elections secure. The Maryland General Assembly this week gave final passage to a bill called the Safe and Accessible Registration Act to make Maryland’s elections more secure and accessible. It would save taxpayers money, too.

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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.

This bill, which now goes to Gov. Larry Hogan, would allow eligible adults to register to vote or update their voter information whenever they interact with a state agency, like the DMV. With one click, voters’ information will be encrypted and sent to the Board of Elections, where it would be verified. This information sharing technology would make our voter rolls more accurate and save the state time and money.

As an active duty serviceman, updating your voter registration isn’t usually at the top of your to-do list. The military requires frequent relocation with short warning, and I can tell you from experience, plenty of my buddies didn’t vote because the process was too complicated.

Can you imagine being stationed overseas to defend our country’s freedom but too burdened to participate in our democracy? If Maryland’s elected leaders want to do something to serve men and women in uniform, they will pass this bill to make voting more accessible.

Even for those of us not in uniform, the process can be cumbersome. Too many Marylanders each election are required to vote on provisional ballots because their address was never updated on the voter registration rolls, a process that slows down poll-workers and contributes to lengthy voting lines. It’s also frustrating and leaves many voters feeling left out.

More than 10 states have already implemented automatic voter registration, and their voter rolls are cleaner and their elections more secure because of it. Maryland was once a national leader in election modernization, allowing early voting so that people could vote who wanted to. We could be again.

News outlets are already reporting that our 2018 elections will be targeted just like in 2016. I hope that Gov. Larry Hogan responds to this threat and signs the Safe and Accessible Registration Act.

America must be protected, but not always just from fighter jets and tanks. Our democracy is what makes us who we are, and our right to vote is how we do it.

As a citizen, that’s something worth fighting for.

Ryan Walton is a retired corporal in the U.S. Army and a resident of Finksburg. His email is r.walt0709@gmail.com.

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