Voter rights were on track to get a big boost this year in Maryland after the General Assembly passed four critical pieces of legislation to expand voter access.
Unfortunately, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoed all four bills that the Democratic-dominated assembly had passed, despite broad support for the measures from elected officials, community leaders and nonprofit organizations statewide. The legislature should override these vetoes and pass a broader "Maryland Voter Bill of Rights" so that the largest number of citizens possible can participate in the 2006 elections.
The Maryland Voter Bill of Rights would be built around four principles of fair voting -- access, ease, inclusion and verification. It would include:
* Absentee voting on demand.
Any citizen should be able to vote by absentee ballot without providing a justification. What's important is voter turnout, not the method of balloting.
* Early voting.
With an expanded Election Day, polls could remain open for five days instead of one. Several states permit voting 30 days before Election Day, and many countries have instituted this reform. Iraqi citizens living in the United States had three days to vote in the January elections in that country; surely, U.S. citizens should have a similar opportunity.
* Vote verification.
Maryland's voting machines should be equipped with reliable and proven safeguards to protect votes and prevent fraud. Such safeguards might include paper records, improved testing of voting machine software and increased criminal penalties for anyone tampering with voting machines.
* Enfranchisement of felons who have paid their debt to society.
Once felons have completed their sentences and paid their dues to society, they should be given back the right to vote.
* Voter protection.
Voters must be given the opportunity to verify their identities if their votes are challenged, and we must enforce stiff penalties on individuals who commit acts of voter suppression and intimidation.
* Voting precincts on college campuses.
College students would be more likely to make voting a habit if precincts were located on campus. This also would demonstrate to students that they have a voice and that their opinions matter. Many students lack transportation and are not well-informed about voting locations, so creating on-campus precincts would be sensible.
* Same-day voter registration.
In Maryland, voters must be registered 30 days before an election, one of the most restrictive voter-registration statutes in the country. Same-day registration has worked in other states without fraud.
* Adequate voting machines.
In the last election, voters at some polling places faced three-hour waits, causing some of them to skip voting rather than lose wages, or have to deal with transportation or child-care problems.
Some critics of these bills think the cost of reform is too high, but we have nothing more valuable as a nation than our democratic system, and nothing is more intrinsic to that system than the right to vote.
-- Terry Lierman
chairs the Maryland Democratic Party.