- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2016

ANNAPOLIS | Lawmakers said Thursday they aren’t quite sure how to conduct universal voter registration, dealing a blow to Democrats’ hopes of expanding voter rolls in Maryland.

Automatically enrolling everyone who accesses a state service would make their names public as part of voter files, violating their privacy rights, legislators said. Some also worried that automatic enrollment would either require state agencies to check applicants’ citizenship status or else allow noncitizens to register.

“I’m sympathetic to what you’re trying to do,” said state Sen. Bryan Simonaire, Anne Arundel Republican. “I believe that we should get more engagement. But I don’t think that voter registration is the issue. I think it’s more that people are fed up with politicians and politics, and they’re not engaged in the process because they don’t want to be engaged in the process.”

He pointed to Canada’s automatic registration system that at first saw about 70 percent of registered voters participate but only about 50 percent within a few years.

Sens. Roger Manno and Victor Ramirez introduced a bill to require state social service agencies, in conjunction with the Motor Vehicle Administration, to identify eligible but unregistered voters and automatically enroll them with the State Board of Elections. It includes a provision for college students to opt-in to voting in the state, rather than being automatically enrolled, when they apply or enroll in classes.

Maryland Democrats are trying to outdo California and Oregon, which enacted laws last year to automatically enroll driver’s license applicants. Maryland would seek out eligible citizens who might not use the MVA but do apply for other services such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, mobility and paratransit programs and the state health exchange.

“The last couple of hundred years, governments had all kinds of hurdles thrown up to make it onerous or difficult for folks to cast their vote, from poll tests to requirements that you be a man or that you own property or there’s literacy tests,” said Mr. Manno, Montgomery Democrat. “And there’s still vestiges of those difficult provisions in state law.”

With support from Common Cause Maryland, the Brennan Center for Justice, the NAACP, Maryland’s Women League of Voters and others, Mr. Manno pushed to streamline the registration process in hopes it would lead to increased voter participation.

Sen. Gail Bates, Carroll Republican, said state agencies had to check for citizenship status but don’t ask for proof, leading to most agencies not even checking.

Her fear was backed up by a letter to the committee from MVA Administrator Christine E. Nizer, who said her agency asks for people to answer “yes” or “no” if they are a U.S. citizen under penalty of perjury. No paperwork is required to support the claim, so it is possible that those who lie about their citizenship status could be automatically enrolled as voters.

Noting the public nature of voter registration, Mr. Simonaire expressed privacy concerns for people being registered without their knowledge.

Sen. Cheryl Kagan, Montgomery Democrat, also voiced concerns about privacy, saying it would be unfair to voters if the source of their registration, the agency where they interacted with the government, were publicized.

Mr. Manno said there is too much human error in transferring paper registrations to a computerized database, and it is costly as well. The cost of enforcing an integrated registration system linked with several agencies would be offset in the long run by not having to process the paper, he said.

Advocates of the bill said that universal voting registration is a racial issue because many of the people who want to vote but struggle to get involved in the political process are minorities, largely African-Americans or Latinos.

Voting rights has been a contentious issue this session, beginning with a divisive vote on voting rights for felons before they complete probation or parole. That vote, which passed on largely on party lines, had four Democrats join Republicans in opposing the measure.

After that vote, Democrats blamed Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for stirring up ill will among Republicans by posting the names of every senator who voted for the veto override on Facebook, which spurred dozens of angry messages to Democrats, including rape threats.

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