Voter fraud and implementation costs were among the concerns that Republicans raised Thursday about a bill that would make Maryland the third state to automatically register eligible residents to vote.
Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the legislation, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee that his proposal would make the registration process more secure and convenient, while encouraging more residents to vote. He emphasized that residents would be given a chance to opt out before they are enrolled, addressing concerns from critics who say people shouldn’t be forced to register.
“Regardless of party, we can all agree that our democracy is premised on the idea that the citizens will have an opportunity to make their wishes known at the ballot box,” Luedtke said.
But Republican Cynthia L. Jones, a former member of the St. Mary’s County Board of County Commissioners, said she worries about the potential effect of the legislation on the integrity of Maryland’s voter rolls.
“Who is going to be responsible to see that people who are not eligible to vote are not allowed to vote?” Jones said. “Somebody at the department of motor vehicles, I don’t believe, has the time, energy or expertise to determine whether or not that’s an eligible voter.”
Luedtke’s bill would require the state to automatically register eligible residents to vote when those residents conduct business with the Motor Vehicle Administration and state social-service agencies, unless the individuals opt out. The agencies would have to provide proof of citizenship for those they enroll through the State Board of Elections.
The legislation also would require Maryland’s public colleges and universities to allow students to register to vote or update their registration information through the online portals they use to sign up for classes.
The proposal comes amid a nationwide debate over Republican efforts to enact voter-identification laws that critics say create barriers to voting for many low-income and minority individuals.
It also fits with Democrats’ plans to spur greater voter participation in heavily Democratic Maryland after Republican businessman Larry Hogan won the governorship in 2014.
The other states to adopt a universal registration system are Oregon and California, also both heavily Democratic. Oregon registers all eligible voters who receive driver’s licenses, and then mails ballots to them at election time. California automatically adds eligible voters to its voter rolls when they renew their driver’s licenses, but the state offers people an opportunity to opt out.
New Jersey’s Democratic-majority legislature passed a universal registration measure last year, but Gov. Chris Christie (R), a close friend of Hogan, vetoed it.
Del. Kevin B. Hornberger (R-Cecil) said the local costs for implementing Luedtke’s bill concerned him.
The bill would cost the state about $8 million up front for information technology and personnel, and roughly $800,000 a year to maintain and operate, according to a report from the state’s legislative analysts.
Luedtke said he is working on ways to mitigate some of the financial impacts. “I think it’s worth spending money to get it right, to make sure that people are able to exercise that right,” he said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has co-sponsored the legislation, and aides to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) have said he generally supports efforts to increase the number of eligible registered voters.