Maryland Democrats plan to propose legislation next year that would automatically place eligible residents on state voter rolls, a move that would make Maryland the third state to adopt what advocates call a “universal registration” system.
State Sen. Roger P. Manno (D-Montgomery) has pre-filed a bill for the 2016 legislative session to implement such a plan, and Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said he is drafting a similar measure to introduce in the House.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) have indicated that they might push for automatic registration next year as a way to increase voting accessibility.
Busch’s chief of staff, Alexandra Hughes, said the speaker is “very supportive” of automatic registration, and an aide to Miller said the senator thinks lawmakers should seriously consider any measures that increase the number of eligible voters who are registered.
The two states that already have adopted similar registration systems are, like Maryland, heavily Democratic. Republicans have largely opposed such measures, criticizing them as Democratic attempts to find new voters who are likely to support the Democratic Party.
Oregon registers all eligible voters who get drivers’ licenses and mails ballots to them at election time. California automatically adds eligible voters to its voter rolls when they renew their drivers’ licenses but also offers them an opportunity to opt out.
The Maryland system would be more proactive, using government databases to identify all who are eligible to vote and register them. The state would inform them that they can opt out.
The Baltimore Sun first reported the Democrats’ proposals Thursday.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has not taken a position on universal registration. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a political mentor and close friend of Hogan’s, vetoed an automatic voter-registration measure that New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature passed this year.
“The administration will examine the proposal and will consider its merits if it moves closer to the governor’s desk for signature,” Hogan spokesman Matt Clark said. “Obviously, issues like cost, fairness and practicality are always important considerations in any new legislation.”
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said automatic registration would make elections more vulnerable to fraud by signing up people who do not plan to vote or are not motivated to do so.
“I’m sorry, but adding that many inactive people to the rolls — we don’t have a way to verify them,” he said.
Cluster also said that proactively registering voters is not one of government’s responsibilities. “I have a real problem philosophically with government deciding to do something for you,” he said. “There are countries that fine people who don’t vote. Is that next? We’re already fined for not having health care.”
Manno disagreed, saying the state should do everything it can to increase voter participation. He and other Democrats say that little extra spending would be required for a system of automatic registration and that cost should not be the primary consideration.
“It’s my belief that government should make people’s lives easier, not more difficult,” Manno said. “That’s what we’re trying to do here — enfranchise as many people as possible and make their busy lives a little easier.”
Luedtke said fraud would be unlikely under his plan, because the process would involve the Motor Vehicle Administration’s licensing process, which requires documentary verification of each person’s identity.
Under Maryland’s current system, an eligible resident can register to vote in one of three ways: online; when obtaining a driver’s license; or through voter-registration drives. Advocates of universal registration say the existing system can disadvantage the poor, many of whom do not have drivers’ licenses or Internet access.
Under Manno’s plan, the MVA, social-services agencies and the state’s health exchange would forward to election officials data about anyone who meets the age, residency and citizenship criteria to vote. Election officials would sort through the data to determine who would be eligible voters on Election Day.
Luedtke has a similar plan that he thinks would minimize any risk that automatic registration would pose to the immigration status of green-card holders — who are not eligible to vote in state and national elections. His plan would require agencies to preemptively inform eligible voters that they can opt out of being registered.