State Senator Roger Manno and Delegate Eric Luedtke are proposing a bill to provide for automatic registration of eligible voters from the records of various state agencies. The Baltimore Sun reported:
Maryland’s top Democrats are looking at legislation that would automatically put every eligible state resident on the voting rolls, abandoning the traditional registration system.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch say they are seriously considering putting their weight behind a “universal voter registration” plan. If a change were approved, Maryland would join a small number of state legislatures, all led by Democrats, that passed laws to register people who did not take the initiative to register.
The two sponsors, both from Montgomery County, also commented for the Sun article.
“You’re grabbing the universe of people who are eligible to vote and registering them,” Manno said of his proposal.
Relying primarily on the driver’s license system to reach potential voters leaves out many people — particularly the poor and those in cities — who do not have licenses, Manno said.
His proposal would require not only the Motor Vehicle Administration but also social services agencies and the state’s health exchange to automatically forward to elections officials data about anyone age 16 or older who is a Maryland resident and a citizen. Elections officials would be responsible for sifting through the data to determine whether those people would be 18 by Election Day and otherwise eligible to vote, much the way they currently process applications to vote.
Under Manno’s proposal, voters would be notified they have been registered. Those who did not want to be would have 21 days to inform elections officials.
“Ours is as close to ‘universal’ as we think we could get,” Manno said.
He dismissed the argument that people need to take the initiative to be registered.
“People either have a right to vote or they don’t,” he said. “It’s government’s job to make people’s lives easier and better, not throw up barriers to exercising their rights.”
In the House, Democratic Del. Eric G. Luedtke of Montgomery County is championing a slightly different approach. Instead of automatically registering people, workers at the MVA and social services agencies would be required to tell people they will be registered to vote unless they would like to opt out.
Luedtke said that seemingly subtle difference may avoid potential legal problems with Manno’s method, which Luedtke said could possibly jeopardize green card holders’ immigration status by inadvertently registering them as voters.
Regardless of the approach, Luedtke said, the state can develop a more secure, more inclusive system than relying on volunteers with clipboards at voter registration drives.
“The current way we do registration is a mess,” he said. “You have someone out in front of a Safeway.”
California and Oregon have previously provided for automatic voter registration. Oregon has one of the highest voter turnout percentages in the country - it also provides for vote by mail for all voters.
This proposal is a positive stone in the right direction. Our archaic voter registration systems in this country are a disgrace that creates barriers to getting voters registered. It’s good to see both House and Senate leadership getting behind this bill. Let’s hope it passes this year.
UPDATE: Delegate Eric Luedtke advises that there is a team of delegates working together on the House version of the bill: Shelly Hettleman, Mary Washington, Alonzo Washington, Sandy Rosenberg, David Moon, Will Smith, Kirill Reznik, and Sheila Hixson. Always happy to spread the credit for good ideas.