A coalition of activist groups, elections officials and the newly elected mayor of Rockville joined forces today to revive a perennial effort to abolish local laws that force voters to register for municipal elections, even if they're already registered for county or general elections.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Albert Wynn (D-Prince George's), received its first hearing of the year before the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, the same panel that rejected it by a 17-to-2 vote last year.
Maryland's policy of allowing dual registration has been criticized by the attorney general's office as an unnecessary hindrance to full voter participation and a possible target for a civil suit if found to cause violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.
"It's sort of time to come into the 20th century in Maryland," said Jeanne D. Hitchcock, special assistant to the attorney general.
Hitchcock was joined in her support of the legislation by Secretary of State Lorraine Sheehan, state elections administrator Marie Garber and representatives of a half-dozen citizen groups.
Maryland is one of only five states that allows dual registration. Idaho, Tennessee, Delaware and Michigan still allow municipalities to maintain separate voting rolls. Mississippi last year switched to universal registration, as the system of only one registration is called.
"Why is Maryland having such a hard time with something other states find so basic?" Sally Hindman, spokesman for Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a citizen public affairs lobby, asked the committee. "Mississippi has been considered to be one of the most backward states in the country. I wonder why Maryland is behind Mississippi. It's embarrassing."
Wynn said that municipal leaders, such as Rockville Mayor Steven Van Grack, are increasingly supportive of the bill, with six out of 28 Prince George's municipalities switching to universal registration in the past few years.
"One man's abuse is another man's procedure," Wynn said of the current election law. "We consider it an abuse when you close voting registration offices at 5 p.m. in a bedroom community where nobody comes home until after that."
Van Grack told the committee that he would not have been able to win office in November if he had not made a concerted effort to convince voters of the need to register twice.
"Nineteen thousand people voted in the general election the year that 4,300 people voted in the municipal election" in Rockville, he said. "Separate registration is an added restriction and impediment to voter turnout."
But the bill's most consistent opponent, the Maryland Municipal League, maintains that universal registration would diminish municipal autonomy by taking power away from local jurisdictions and giving it to the state.
League President Jon Burrell has proposed its own package of bills that would provide for greater notice prior to municipal elections and other procedural changes that would, Burrell said, erase any confusion about who can vote where.
Committee Vice Chairman Donald Robertson (D-Montgomery) criticized Wynn's bill at today's hearing and later expressed support for Burrell's compromise. Universal registration, he said, "is sort of a blunt tool to accomplish the task."