Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Let’s Improve the Election Process

By Marc Korman.

The General Assembly has some major and controversial issues to deal with involving elections: Will the state pass legislation in response to Citizens United changing the rules for corporate campaign contributions? When will optical scan voting systems be in place to ensure a paper trail? Will Senate President Mike Miller follow through on his deal for public campaign financing from the 2009 session? All these are important, but there is a quick and easy improvement the General Assembly can make to our system of elections: pass SB 292/HB 217 immediately.

Introduced by Jamie Raskin in the Senate and Jon Cardin in the House, the legislation as amended would do two things.

First, it would allow individuals to register to vote at age 16. Of course, they would still not be able to vote in a General Election until they are 18, but their registration forms would be processed and held by the Board of Elections until they are eligible. The change makes sense because thanks to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (often referred to as Motor Voter), people applying for their drivers’ licenses are given an opportunity to register to vote. 16 is a time of great responsibility for a person and it is appropriate that on that big trip to the MVA to get their license, 16 year olds are offered a chance to register to vote and become more involved citizens. If a 16 year old does not want to register or is not interested, that’s okay too. No one makes them fill out the form.

The State Board of Elections has indicated that these pre-registrations can be kept separate from the voter file, so those who are registered but still not eligible to vote will not be solicited by candidates or campaigns due to their pre-registration and will maintain their privacy.

Second, the bill standardizes the dates for new voters to register and preexisting registrants to change their party. I wrote about this issue previously but the basic idea is that a first time Maryland voter has until about three weeks before an election to register. But someone already registered without a party or in one party who wants to alter that registration to participate in a primary must do so three months before the election, long before most voters even realize there is an election. SB 292/HB 217 would allow preexisting registrants to change their party status up to three weeks prior to the election, the same as new registrants. Delegate Ivey’s freestanding bill on the issue passed unanimously in 2009 but did not move forward in the Senate.

HB 217 passed the House of Delegates 97-43. The major fight involved whether parental consent should be required for 16 year olds to pre-register with the House rejecting that requirement. I think that was the right outcome because whether or not to register to vote is a personal choice. If we trust 16 year olds on our roads, we should trust them to make the choice to register to vote. And of course, they can always change their minds later and alter their registration, which the second part of the legislation will make even easier.

Unfortunately, the bill is bottled up on the Senate side in committee. That committee chair, Joan Carter Conway from Baltimore, should let the bill out and on to the floor. We may not be able to solve some of the broader issues affecting our election system in 2010, but we can easily address these relatively simple but important election reforms. They should head to the Governor’s desk before the General Assembly adjourns for 2010.