Maryland Democrats hope to break new ground in the push for universal voter registration, planning to wage a fight in the General Assembly this year to automatically sign up everyone who visits certain state social services agency or buys coverage through the state’s Obamacare exchange.
State Sen. Victor Ramirez, Prince George’s County Democrat, and state Sen. Roger Manno, Montgomery County Democrat, have already pre-filed automatic registration bills ahead of the legislative session, saying they are trying to cut down on barriers that keep poor people from showing up at the polls on Election Day.
The bills would automatically register everyone who applies for services at the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) unless the customers specifically opt out — a reversal from the current situation, where customers are asked to opt in.
And fearing that poor residents may not need automobile services or have access to online registration right now, the bills would also automatically enroll those who show up at social services agencies or who buy health insurance on Maryland’s version of the Obamacare exchange.
Similar bills are being contemplated in the House of Delegates and are already drawing support from key lawmakers.
“Voting is a constitutional right, and elected officials should help and encourage every Maryland citizen, regardless of their political affiliation, to vote for the government of their choosing,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said.
Maryland Democrats are trying to outdo California and Oregon, where laws were enacted last year automatically enrolling driver’s license applicants. But Maryland goes further, seeking out eligible citizens who may not use the MVA but who use other services such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, mobility and paratransit programs and the state health exchange.
Hannah Marr, a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said that he has not taken a position on universal registration, but would be “monitoring the upcoming session, and the governor will carefully review any bill that makes it to his desk.”
“As with any initiative or piece of legislation, the associated costs and effects on current government services and programs will be closely scrutinized,” she said.
Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a close friend of Mr. Hogan’s, vetoed a similar measure last year passed by the state’s Democratic-majority legislature.
State Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Maryland Senate’s minority leader, said voting is an important right, but requiring voters to proactively want to register makes sense.
“I’m not trying to disenfranchise anybody from having the right to vote,” the Harford and Baltimore County Republican said. “Every American citizen should be allowed to vote. But people need to do their due diligence to research why they’re voting for someone, and filling out a simple card once in their lifetime to say they want to be a registered voter isn’t too much to ask for.”
He also questioned whether adding more registered voters would actually lead to more people turning out at the polls. He said an effort to expand the early-voting period did not produce a spike in voting.
And Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said universal registration was a “joke” that would make elections more vulnerable to fraud by signing up people who do not plan to vote or are not motivated to do so. It would also set a dangerous precedent, such as fining people for not voting, he said.
“It gets to the basic problem that this isn’t the role of government. It’s not to force people to do things. There’s certain countries in this world that force its citizens to do things,” Mr. Cluster said. “Israel, at 18 years old, you get a gun. Do we want to get all our citizens a gun because you have a right to own a gun?”
The bills’ backers said fraud should not be a concern because all of the information will be sent to the state Board of Elections, which already cooperates with the MVA on screening out erroneous applications.
“There’s already lots of communication between the MVA and the State Board of Elections, so it’s easy to shift to automatic registration, and they’re in a good position to take the next step as well and look at other agencies,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director at Common Cause Maryland.
And advocates dismissed fears of padding Democrats’ numbers on the voting rolls.
“The bills don’t actually register someone for one party or the other,” Michelle Whittaker, communications direct of FairVote, said. “We’ve seen a growing trend in Maryland and other states toward unaffiliated voters who have more of an independent political ideology.”
For his part, Mr. Ramirez said his goal is to get historically disenfranchised people into the process.
“Voting is a good thing. If you’re a citizen, I think you should vote,” Mr. Ramirez said. “We are the greatest nation in the world, and we should have more voter participation. We have to somehow reach out to people to allow them to feel like their voice still counts, allow them to be able to vote.”