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Today, a Maryland Senate Committee is holding a hearing on Universal Voter Registration. Maryland PIRG student leader Cassidy is Annapolis to testify, and here is our written testimony:
Testimony on SB0350
February 18th, 2016
Universal Voter Registration Act
Education Health and Environmental Affairs

POSITION: FAVORABLE

Maryland PIRG is a state based, citizen funded public interest advocacy organization with grassroots members across the state and a student funded, student directed chapter at the University of Maryland College Park. For forty years we’ve stood up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.

Maryland PIRG strongly supports efforts to automate and modernize voter registration. On behalf of thousands of members across the state, I want to thank Senators Manno for their leadership on this issue and look forward to working with them, members of this committee, and others on this issue.

CASE FOR UNIVERSAL VOTER REGISTRATION: A functioning democracy depends on the participation of its citizens. Every American – Democrat, Republican, or independent – has a fundamental right to have their vote counted. Step one to participation in elections is registering to vote; unfortunately many Marylanders are not participating due in part to our outdated voter registration system.

In Maryland 1,153,000 eligible voters are currently left off the registration rolls.

The registration gap is most severe for young people. In 2014, only 42% of youth between the ages of 18-24 were registered to vote before the election, compared to 74% of over 25 year olds.  Numerous studies have shown that voting is habit forming, and youth who vote are more likely to become life-long voters. Our current systems to register new voters haven't worked to date. It is time for a change.

In Maryland PIRG’s 40-year history of working with young people and running non-partisan voter registration drives, we have found that most young people want to and intend to participate in voting, but they need more information about the process of voting as well as the substance of what’s on the ballot. During the 2014 midterm elections Maryland PIRG students helped register and turn out thousands of University of Maryland students to vote, resulting in a 25% increase in voter participation, the highest turnout at the campus polling location in the last six midterm elections.

Across the country our voter registration system is inefficient and inaccurate. Processing paper applications is significantly more expensive than electronic transfers. Nationally, in the last presidential election, it is estimated that over a million eligible voters tried to vote but were turned away because of registration problems. Maryland PIRG is acutely aware of this problem for the student population, a demographic who is registering for the first time in what can be a confusing process.

In Maryland, Universal Voter Registration is an efficient way to update the system and expand access by building on the infrastructure Maryland already has with electronic registration at the DMV. The new system will automatically transfer DMV and other state agency records to the State Board of Elections to process and send a notice to eligible voters to either pick a party affiliation or opt out of registration. This transforms voting from a right you have to opt in to, to one you opt out of. This process, paired with public education around the new system could significantly increase voter participation.

There are four main reasons to support Universal Voter Registration:

1.    First and foremost, it greatly expands access to the franchise, especially for young people. This system is estimated to add 404,000 more eligible Maryland voters to the rolls, making it more likely they will participate in elections, strengthening our democracy. And because we already have pre-registration in Maryland, automating the process at the DMV will provide a unique opportunity to increase youth engagement.
2.    It makes our voter rolls more accurate, by eliminating a significant amount of human error that comes with databasing paper forms from agencies beyond the DMV, frequently updating records when voters move, and eliminating duplicate records.
3.    For many of the same reasons this system is more accurate, it is also more efficient and over time will save taxpayers a significant amount of money.
4.    Expanding electronic transfer of records beyond the DMV and by increasing list accuracy, the system offers a highly secure process for voter registration.

RECCOMENDATIONS: While we fully support the goals of this legislation, we do believe that amendments are needed to ensure the program that Maryland adopts is as robust, secure, and streamlined as possible. We urge a favorable report on SB 350 and look forward to working with the sponsor and committee to adopt a suite of amendments that will further strengthen the bill, including:

1.    Comply with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
2.    Ensure online transactions trigger automatic registration.
3.    Include agencies beyond the MVA on a rolling basis as they become technologically able and if they collect citizenship data.
4.    Require a “hard stop” for all government agencies providing opt-in voter registration, but that do not collect sufficient citizenship data for automatic registration
5.    Add a clear “lookback” provision to register eligible individuals already in agency records.
6.    Require the mailing be costless to the registrant, and translated where necessary.
7.    Include explicit privacy protections for those whose names should not be disclosed publicly.
8.    Add protections for those inadvertently automatically registered.
9.    Add opt-in registration with electronic transfer at institutions of higher education.
10.    Require education of the public on automatic voter registration.

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