State lawmakers propose automatic voter registration

Feb 18, 2016

The Maryland Senate has a couple of bills that would create an automatic voter registration system.
Credit Rachel Baye

Fewer than two million Maryland citizens cast a vote on Election Day in 2014, when Gov. Larry Hogan was elected. Some state lawmakers say the first step in getting more people to vote is making voter registration automatic.

Under a proposal by Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat, the state would use databases for several agencies — such as the Motor Vehicle Administration, social service agencies and the state health exchange — to find eligible voters and register them to vote. The residents would then receive a notice in the mail that they have been registered and that they have 21 days to opt out.

“Going back hundreds of years, government has thrown up all kinds of barriers to folks casting their votes. There have been prohibitions against folks voting because of their race or their age or their gender or their religion or because they didn't or did own property or because they were or weren't literate,” Manno said. “This is a sort of a vestige of the past, the sort of onerous requirement that folks actually have to go and register to vote.”

Del. Eric Luedtke, another Montgomery County Democrat, has a similar proposal. His bill would automatically register people to vote at the Motor Vehicle Administration, but not through the other state agencies listed in Manno’s bill. The measure has more than 75 cosponsors in the House of Delegates.

One of the benefits of an automatic registration system is that it’s more secure than the existing system, which has been around for decades, Luedtke said.

“We don't run into the chance of situations like that a few years ago in Virginia where a voter registrar threw out voter applications of people because they were from a different party,” he said.

California and Oregon both recently adopted automatic voter registration. Because the new systems just went into effect in January, it’s too soon to know what impact the programs will have.

Jennifer Clark, a lawyer in the program that handles voting rights issues at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the programs will help keep voter rosters up to date.

When people move, they tend to update their driver’s license information but not their voter registration. If the voter registration updated automatically based on the driver’s license change, though, that wouldn’t be a problem.

Because the systems automate processes that have previously been done by hand, Clark said the programs could also help cut costs.

But the biggest benefit of a proposal like Manno’s, she said, is that it could register people who are typically the least likely to register and show up to the polls on their own.

“The elderly are less likely to have an up to date driver's license,” she said. “The elderly, however, might interface to get their Social Security checks or to get Medicare or Medicaid.”

Urban dwellers are another group that could be affected since they’re also less likely to have driver’s licenses than residents of rural areas.

“The expansion of this to other social service agencies would be more likely to get people who live in cities, people who potentially move around more often,” Clark said, “and that tends to include low income voters.”

But Del. Neil Parrott, a Republican from Washington County, said the proposals are an invitation for fraud.

“All it does is make it much, much easier to cheat in elections, to say, ‘Hey, this person has not voted for the last 16 years. They're not going to vote again this time, so I'm going to take their name and don't even need an ID and go ahead and vote,’” he said.

Parrott has his own voter registration bill in the General Assembly. His would require Marylanders to submit proof that they’re citizens before they can officially register to vote.