Voting Rights Take Center Stage at the General Assembly

By Laura Muth
Democracy Associate

Last week was a big week in Maryland politics. One of Maryland PIRG’s top priorities, same-day voter registration (SDR), got plenty of airtime. We worked with a broad coalition of partners to provide testimony on a bill introduced by the governor that aims to expand voting rights by letting eligible Marylanders to register to vote at polling places during the early voting period, as well as increasing the number of early voting days to eight and increasing the number of polling places during early voting.

Our democracy is strengthened when our citizens are able to engage. A study done by Demos estimates that SDR could increase voter turnout by 4% in Maryland. Among young voters, who have often been marginalized in the past, that number could more than double to nearly 10%.

Historically, SDR states have had voter turnout rates 10-12 percentage points higher than states that do not have SDR. The five states with the highest turnout rates in the 2008 election were all SDR states (this includes states that had SDR only during the voting period and ones that also allowed registration on election day.)

Young voters and low-income voters stand to gain the most from SDR, because they are more likely to move frequently for school and work. As a result, they may show up to the polls only to find that their registration information is no longer accurate.

Likewise, students may have moved for school, but intend to make Maryland their home and want the opportunity to engage in their local elections. Although the youth vote has been on the rise in recent elections, it has still lagged behind the national average. SDR will help engage these new voters.

Students and first-time voters are also often unaware of registration deadlines, and can end up missing out on voting in an election not because they are uninterested in politics, as pundits sometimes argue, but rather because they were unfamiliar with the hurdles that must be cleared to participate.

In the past, such situations have sometimes been addressed by having voters cast a provisional ballot, but reconciling provisional ballots is a process that often proved onerous for election officials. And when those ballots aren’t counted, as is sometimes the case, the experience is disillusioning for voters. As a result, voters who have to cast provisional ballots often choose not to vote at all in later elections.

SDR can solve these problems. By allowing SDR during early voting, we can ensure that voter registration is confirmed before counting the ballots, so voters can cast a regular ballot at the polls. This streamlines the counting process for officials and encourages participation in the electoral process.

In addition, SDR allows people who have mistakenly been purged from voting rolls to cast their ballot. This prevents people from being turned away from the polls and again redresses the problems associated with provisional ballots.

The last few weeks of an election can often prove the most critical in capturing voters’ interest, but by then voter registration deadlines may have already passed. SDR provides a second chance for those voters whose busy lives have kept them from getting as involved in politics, and who only start to really think about the election when the standard deadline has already passed.

The governor’s SDR bill also included other measures to increase voter participation, including expanding early voting to 8 days and increasing the number of early voting centers. In an MIT study, Maryland was ranked as having the third longest wait time for voters trying to vote early.

Early voting is becoming increasingly popular, as it grants more flexibility to voters with busy lives. It is of particular importance to low-income voters, who often work jobs that preclude them from taking time off to travel to a polling place, stand in line, and cast a ballot on Election Day.

Expanded early voting and SDR are important and complementary measures to make sure our democracy is accessible for all Marylanders.

Voting rights were the big issue in committee last week. Keep an eye out for updates as we move forward!

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