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Maryland voters to decide whether to adopt Election Day registration

Voters cast ballots in early voting at the Potomac Community Recreation Center in Potomac, Md. On the ballot is an initiative that would allow voters to register on Election Day. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid heightened conversation across the country about voting rights and who has access to the ballot, Maryland voters are deciding whether to amend the state constitution to allow people to register on Election Day.

The Democratic-backed initiative, which was opposed by most Republican lawmakers and has not been endorsed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), is one of two statewide questions on the ballot for the midterm elections.

The other, which has Hogan’s backing and bipartisan support in the General Assembly, asks voters to decide whether to amend Maryland’s constitution to ensure all casino revenue be spent on K-12 public education.

Maryland already allows residents to register during early voting, which this year ends Thursday, but they cannot do it on Election Day.

Over objections from Republican lawmakers, the legislature has passed several other measures to expand voting rights in recent years.

“We’re telling people that we value their vote and their participation,” said Maryland Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery), who began pushing for same-day registration a decade ago. “Some states are making efforts to close the ballot box. . . . In Maryland, I’m proud of everything we’ve done to open it.”

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said he and other GOP lawmakers opposed the same-day registration measure because the State Board of Elections should have time “to verify the person as a lawful voter.”

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Studies show in-person voter fraud is extremely rare, but it has nonetheless emerged as a hot-button political issue nationwide. This year, President Trump disbanded a controversial voter fraud commission he created after suggesting, without evidence, that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of millions of illegally cast ballots.

“While voter fraud is not widespread, it does happen,” Kipke said. “We have to have reasonable guards against voter fraud while also allowing the most opportunities possible for residents to vote.”

Hogan has not endorsed the concept of same-day registration but “supports the right of Maryland voters to make this decision, and expects that it will be approved,” said his spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous said he is “firmly in support” of Election Day registration for voters, noting that he worked to expand voting rights as president of the NAACP.

Since the General Assembly voted to place the issue on the ballot, there has been little organized opposition to its passage.

Hogan vetoed a 2015 bill restoring voting rights for felons who remain on probation or parole, but the General Assembly overrode the veto, making about 44,000 more people eligible to register.

This year, the governor allowed a bill to become law without his signature that made Maryland the 12th state to allow residents to automatically register to vote when they get a driver's license or otherwise ­interact with state agencies.

If the initiative passes, Maryland would join 16 states and the District in making registration available on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two states — Maryland and North Carolina — allow same-day registration for a portion of their early voting periods but not on Election Day.

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Both Hogan and Jealous support the other question on the ballot, which asks voters to decide whether to create a “lockbox” to mandate that all of the state’s casino money be used to supplement current spending on K-12 public education.

Hogan put out an ad this summer asking voters to approve “the Hogan lockbox initiative” — which upset some Democratic lawmakers, who pointed out that the governor initially supported a different measure, which did not advance, that created a “lockbox” in state law, not via constitutional amendment. Democrats said Hogan’s measure would have made it too easy for future lawmakers to divert casino funds away from education.

When Marylanders approved constitutional amendments allowing slot machines starting in 2008 and table games in 2012, lawmakers promised funds would go toward education. But there was no legal requirement revenue be spent that way, and since 2009, when the state’s Education Trust Fund was created, $1.9 billion in casino revenue has been redirected from public school spending to the general fund to balance the budget, according to the Maryland State Education Association.

The measure approved by the General Assembly would require the state to gradually increase education funding until fiscal 2023, when 100 percent of casino money would be used for supplemental education spending.

The lockbox “is a step in the right direction,” said MSEA President Cheryl Bost. She said she hopes the funds will go toward increasing teacher pay and hiring more teachers.

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