Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch are considering some important voter legislation for the 2016 session of the General Assembly.
It’s called “universal voter registration,” and currently only two states — California and Oregon — have it. It’s a simple idea. Rather than requiring registration to vote, all eligible residents would automatically be put on state voter rolls.
According to Miller and Busch, this is about enabling more voter participation.
According to Joe Cluster, executive director of the state GOP, “This is all about the Democrats finding new voters. This is a joke. God forbid they actually go out there and register people to vote.”
“I’m in favor of as much access to voting as possible,” says Busch. It’s the one great franchise that every citizen and every Marylander should exercise.”
Miller echoes that sentiment, saying, “I’m for any and all legislation that increases voter participation.”
According to a recent Baltimore Sun story, instituting universal voter registration would add hundreds of thousands of voters to the state’s voting lists. The conventional wisdom says a lot of those previously unregistered voters would be minorities, immigrants, folks with lower incomes and/or less education — groups that tend to vote Democratic.
Democratic legislatures in California and Oregon made this happen in their states. In New Jersey, the Democratic-controlled legislature tried to follow suit, but GOP Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill. “I don’t think that people ought to be automatically registered to vote,” he said. “Is it really too much to ask someone to fill out a form?”
One might reasonably ask why someone should be required to register to vote when he or she is already an eligible voter.
Maryland’s process could involve using various databases to identify qualified voters and then automatically registering them to vote. There would be an opt-out provision for those who don’t want to be registered.
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings believes that filling out a registration form is an indication of an informed, committed voter. “Requiring people to register to vote by filling out a single-page form is a simple way to ensure the voters are dedicated enough to do their part” — an indication that they are or will become informed about the issues and the candidates. Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?
If this bill materializes, it may be fashioned after legislation created by Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat. Manno dismisses out of hand Jennings’ argument that people need to take the initiative to register to vote. “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.”
There are several approaches, including Manno’s, as to exactly how these new voter rolls would be created, and a number of important details to work out, but the basic idea is that eligible voters will be automatically registered by the state without having to fill out a registration form.
Under this idea, people could opt out of being registered if they chose and, of course, could choose not to vote if they please. That sounds like a very democratic arrangement.
It’s uncertain whether being registered would make someone more likely to participate in an election. Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, thinks the answer is yes. “Once people get on the voter rolls, the people who want you to vote get activated,” says Perez.
Those “people who want you to vote” would have a lot more potential prospects if this legislation is proposed and passes muster in Annapolis. We assume that the Democratic and Republican parties would both “get activated” and compete for those new voters’ loyalty.
We support universal voter registration in principle and believe if it is carefully conceived and managed it could be a secure and fair system and would bring many more eligible Maryland voters into the electoral process.