By Bryan Renbaum
Maryland Sen. Roger Manno wants to eliminate voter registration, and instead automatically enroll every Marylander of voting age with a state-issued ID card or receives benefits from social services.
On Thursday, Manno, D-Montgomery told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that it is time for Maryland to modernize its voter registration system and join states like Oregon and California that have already enacted similar legislation.
“For the last couple of hundred years governments have had all kinds of hurdles thrown up to make it more onerous or difficult for folks to be able to cast their vote or poll test requirements that you be a man, or that you own property: there were literacy tests, and there are still some vestiges of those difficult provisions in state law,” Manno said.
“What [Oregon and California] have done is basically identify a universe of folks who are eligible to vote, and at the age of eligibility, will register them to vote, so that they don’t have to jump through that hoop to actually go and cast their votes,” Manno said.
SB 350, which he calls The Universal Voter Registration Act, requires the Motor Vehicle Administration and social services agencies to provide the State Board of Elections with electronic records containing information about eligible voters, beginning at age 16, and retroactively register them. For those who wish to opt out, local election boards will mail exemption notices.
The bill enjoys support from committee Chair Joan Carter Conway and Vice Chair Paul Pinksy, along with 17 other Democrats. But it faces opposition from others over concerns about cost and the potential for fraud.
According to the fiscal note produced by the Department of Legislative Services, state expenditures are projected to increase at least $400,000 in one-time implementation costs for FY 2017, and could prove more expensive for local governments who would bear the responsibility for notifying voters.
In particular, the social service agencies could have additional costs. According to the Department of Legislative Services, the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services would need to spend about $1 million initially and then another $100,000 per year in ongoing costs in order to have a system that would track the required information.
Civil rights advocates support bill
Gabriel Acevero, vice president of the African-American Democratic Club of Montgomery County, said the bill could potentially save the state money by doing away with registration costs and subsequently explained that registration hassles and systemic inefficiencies discourage greater participation.
“Voting has long been considered the touchstone of our democracy, yet we force voters to jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops to perform this sacred act of citizenship.” In Maryland, election officials spend roughly a third of their budgets on the registration process, he said. “This current system of voter registration is a nightmare,” Acevero said.
An official from the Hispanic advocacy group CASA de Maryland said that the bill could also help remedy voter participation in that community. Minorities or low-income residents, and Latinos in particular, are underrepresented in the electorate due to registration challenges, she said.
Republican senators skeptical
Sen. Gail Bates, R-Carrol & Howard, was concerned that the bill would enable non-citizens to vote. The bill requires that only citizens be registered, but Bates questioned if this will be checked.
“I have an issue with agencies that maybe cannot or will not for whatever reason, verify — then just having them automatically registered — we don’t know if people are actually U.S citizens or not,” Bates said. Maryland issues driver’s licenses to many noncitizens, even illegal aliens.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, believes the bill would not remedy low voter participation, which he attributes to general apathy.
“I don’t think that voter registration is the issue, I think it’s more that people are fed up with politicians and politics and they’re not engaged in the process because they don’t want to be engaged in the process,” Simonaire said.
Counties and GOP oppose bill
Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, was the only party who testified against the bill, citing cost concerns.
“Our issues are on the practical side, we’ve heard from a number of our election directors who are just concerned about the back of end of the bill as submitted. I gather there’s a substantial set of amendments that speak to the administrative side and I haven’t quite seen them yet,” Sanderson said.
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, told Maryland Reporter that he opposes the bill as well.
“It opens it up to the door to voter fraud because they are adding people who don’t want to be registered to vote,” Cluster said. He said that adequate background checks are not in place either.
Bryan Renbaum can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org