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Extending the right to vote in Md.

The right to vote is "the first right and the most vital of all our rights," declared President Lyndon Johnson when introducing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a joint session of Congress. Fifty years later, we must still fight to protect the right of every American to vote, because in our democracy all other rights flow from it.

Unfortunately, over the past decade, dozens of states have limited the right of Americans to choose their elected officials. States have enacted onerous voter ID laws that prevent minorities, the elderly and young people from voting. They have cut early voting and limited access to the ballot in myriad other ways. These laws undermine our democracy. In Maryland, however, we should set an example for the rest of the country in preserving and extending the right to vote.

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That's why we have worked for the past year, alongside a coalition of legislators from around the state, to develop the Freedom to Vote Act. Our goal is to modernize the process of voter registration, which has remained essentially unchanged for decades. Many voters still register under an antiquated model — by filling out a paper voter registration form and entrusting a volunteer voter registrar to properly submit it. This method of registering voters through middlemen leaves open the possibility of mistakes or worse, as we saw a few years ago when an employee of a Republican consulting firm in Virginia literally threw completed voter registration forms in the trash.

Registering to vote shouldn't be a hurdle for Marylanders to jump through. It should be convenient and secure. Under Freedom to Vote, Marylanders who go to the Motor Vehicle Administration to get a driver's license will be told that they will be registered to vote unless they choose to opt out.

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Social science research tells us that simply switching the premise of the question from, "would you like to register to vote?" to "would you like to opt out?" will lead to a significant increase in registrations. Marylanders who currently hold a driver's license but are not registered will be given the same opportunity.

Because there are plenty of Marylanders who do not hold a driver's license, Freedom to Vote would similarly implement an opt-out system at the Health Benefit Exchange, as well as during the application process for other public benefits through a number of other agencies.

Having voters register at these agencies would make the process not just more convenient, but more secure, because the agencies already understand the importance of confidentiality and collect the information necessary to know if a person is eligible to register.

The end result would make voter registration a significantly smoother process. For thousands of Marylanders who want to vote but have encountered difficulties in registration, this bill would give them access to the ballot booth.

Having worked on Freedom to Vote with a number of national organizations that have expertise in election law, we believe that it will be the best thought out proposal of this type in the country. Maryland can, and should, set the standard for protecting the right to vote.

We think the prospects are good for getting it done. We have been encouraged to see members of the Senate introduce their own proposals. And we have been excited to hear nothing but support from constituents.

Let us be clear: Freedom to Vote would register all Marylanders regardless of their party affiliation. Unfortunately, we have already heard some opposition rooted in partisanship.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman Joe Cluster called this idea "a joke." Mr. Cluster, we aren't joking. We believe in the right to vote. We believe in democracy. And we take our responsibility to strengthen both very seriously.

Removing barriers for all eligible voters should be a non-partisan issue, but if Mr. Cluster or others in the Republican Party choose to oppose extending and protecting the right to vote, we Democrats will lead, following in the footsteps of the bipartisan majority that enacted the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago.

Del. Shelly Hettleman is a Baltimore County Democrat; her email is shelly.hettleman@house.state.md.us. Dels. Sandy Rosenberg and Mary Washington are Baltimore City Democrats; their emails are samuel.rosenberg@house.state.md.us and mary.washington@house.state.md.us.

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