Modernizing Voter Registration

An op-ed in today’s Baltimore Sun from Delegates Shelly Hettleman, Sandy Rosenberg, and Mary Washington on the House version of a bill to provide for automatic voter registration of eligible voters using MVA and other government agency data. Clap, clap, clap. Beginning the process of bringing our voter registration systems out of the 19th century and into the 21st is an important first step.

Registering to vote shouldn’t be a hurdle for Marylanders to jump through. It should be convenient and secure. Under Freedom to Vote, Marylanders who go to the Motor Vehicle Administration to get a driver’s license will be told that they will be registered to vote unless they choose to opt out.

Social science research tells us that simply switching the premise of the question from, “would you like to register to vote?” to “would you like to opt out?” will lead to a significant increase in registrations. Marylanders who currently hold a driver’s license but are not registered will be given the same opportunity.
Because there are plenty of Marylanders who do not hold a driver’s license, Freedom to Vote would similarly implement an opt-out system at the Health Benefit Exchange, as well as during the application process for other public benefits through a number of other agencies.

The Most Important Veto Override

In 16 days, the General Assembly goes back to work. There will be many story lines, not least of which seeing how things go for the five officeholders who are running for Congress in CD4 and CD8. But the first order of business for the legislature will be the prospect of whether to override Governor Larry Hogan’s four vetoes. There are strategic considerations to discuss, and there is the not so far away anymore 2018 election to think about, but today I want to focus on one of the bills that Hogan vetoed, HB980, that would have restored voting rights to approximately 43,000 individuals with felony convictions when they get out of jail. Current law delays such voting rights until the individual completes parole or probation, a process which can take many years to complete.

The lead sponsor of this bill is my friend Delegate Cory McCray of Baltimore. He has established a Facebook page, Marylanders for Voting Rights, which can be found here. A number of folks have done videos calling for the Hogan veto to be overridden. Here’s a few.

Author Wes Moore:

Author Kevin Shird:

Community activist Eric Booker:

Cory has developed a very nice map showing where the likely beneficiaries of this law reside. Baltimore City has by far the most citizens returning from felony incarceration. Big shocker, I know. I bet Larry Hogan knows that, too, wink, wink. 

The final vote on this bill in the House was 82-57. 85 votes (60%) are required to override a veto. 81 Democrats voted yes. Speaker Mike Busch needs to find four votes. One of those votes will almost assuredly come from new Delegate Susie Proctor, whose late husband Jim Proctor missed the vote last year. That leaves three votes. Delegate Michael Jackson of Prince George’s County did not vote on the bill last year. That could be a second vote. Busch then would need to find two votes from among the eight delegates listed below who voted no on the bill in 2015.

Charlie Barkley (Montgomery)
Pam Beidle (Anne Arundel)
Eric Bromwell (Baltimore County)
Ned Carey (Anne Arundel)
Mark Chang (Anne Arundel)
Mary Ann Lisanti (Harford)
Ted Sophocleus (Anne Arundel)
C.T. Wilson (Charles)

All three members of District 32 (Beidle, Chang, and Sophocleus) voted no. LD32 is one of the most competitive districts in the state. Ned Carey and Mary Ann Lisanti represent single member subdistricts carved from larger Republican areas. Eric Bromwell represents LD8, a moderate to conservative district in eastern Baltimore County where Bromwell is the only remaining Democratic delegate. Both Charlie Barkley and C.T. Wilson are noted contrarians (as is Bromwell) from electorally safe districts.

I’m betting Busch can get the votes he needs. But a little (nice, please!) push from you to your favorite delegate or three on this list wouldn’t hurt either. Because this bill should become law. Let’s help get this done.

California Anti-Transgender Ballot Measure Fails

Here’s some good news as we find ourselves in the midst of the longest night of the year. Light a candle rather than curse the darkness, right? Well, here’s a candle.

Backers of a proposed ballot initiative that sought to require transgender people to use the public restrooms that correspond with their biological sex say they have failed to qualify the measure for the California ballot.

Monday was the deadline for the initiative’s sponsors to submit voter signatures to county election offices for verification.

Karen England of the Privacy for All campaign said in a statement that the volunteer-led effort fell short of the 365,880 signatures needed to get the initiative on the November 2016 ballot. England did not reveal by how much.

I despise the referendum and initiative process. It’s used disproportionately against racial and ethnic minority groups, gays and lesbians and now transgender people. Besides that, it’s completely at odds with our representative form of government. We don’t vote by plebiscite on every law, we rely on our elected representatives to make good choices (we can replace them if they don’t), and the initiative and referendum process is a failed vestige of the progressive era of the early 20th century. Whatever utility it may have once had, it should be done away with today. It encourages a know-nothing majoritarian mob mentality that almost never produces good outcomes.

“A Very Democratic Arrangement”

The Frederick News-Post has an editorial  today in favor of the concept of universal voter registration. Smart folks, those FNPers.

One might reasonably ask why someone should be required to register to vote when he or she is already an eligible voter.

Maryland’s process could involve using various databases to identify qualified voters and then automatically registering them to vote. There would be an opt-out provision for those who don’t want to be registered.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings believes that filling out a registration form is an indication of an informed, committed voter. “Requiring people to register to vote by filling out a single-page form is a simple way to ensure the voters are dedicated enough to do their part” — an indication that they are or will become informed about the issues and the candidates. Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?

If this bill materializes, it may be fashioned after legislation created by Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat. Manno dismisses out of hand Jennings’ argument that people need to take the initiative to register to vote. “People either have a right to vote or they don’t,” he said. “It’s government’s job to make people’s lives easier and better, not throw up barriers to exercising their rights.”

There are several approaches, including Manno’s, as to exactly how these new voter rolls would be created, and a number of important details to work out, but the basic idea is that eligible voters will be automatically registered by the state without having to fill out a registration form.

Under this idea, people could opt out of being registered if they chose and, of course, could choose not to vote if they please. That sounds like a very democratic arrangement.

* * *

We support universal voter registration in principle and believe if it is carefully conceived and managed it could be a secure and fair system and would bring many more eligible Maryland voters into the electoral process.

This is an important first step, but it’s by no means the end of the process. The ultimate goal should be a vote by mail system – as has been instituted in Oregon, Washington and Colorado with great success and high voter participation – that takes the clunky mid-20th century election machinery and 18th century election mentality out of the process.

But this will be a huge fight – how will Republicans conduct their traditonal voter suppression efforts with a simple, fair, election system in place that allows for maximum participation?

Automatic Voter Registration

State Senator Roger Manno and Delegate Eric Luedtke are proposing a bill to provide for automatic registration of eligible voters from the records of various state agencies. The Baltimore Sun reported:

Maryland’s top Democrats are looking at legislation that would automatically put every eligible state resident on the voting rolls, abandoning the traditional registration system.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch say they are seriously considering putting their weight behind a “universal voter registration” plan. If a change were approved, Maryland would join a small number of state legislatures, all led by Democrats, that passed laws to register people who did not take the initiative to register.

The two sponsors, both from Montgomery County, also commented for the Sun article.

“You’re grabbing the universe of people who are eligible to vote and registering them,” Manno said of his proposal.

Relying primarily on the driver’s license system to reach potential voters leaves out many people — particularly the poor and those in cities — who do not have licenses, Manno said.

His proposal would require not only the Motor Vehicle Administration but also social services agencies and the state’s health exchange to automatically forward to elections officials data about anyone age 16 or older who is a Maryland resident and a citizen. Elections officials would be responsible for sifting through the data to determine whether those people would be 18 by Election Day and otherwise eligible to vote, much the way they currently process applications to vote.

Under Manno’s proposal, voters would be notified they have been registered. Those who did not want to be would have 21 days to inform elections officials.

“Ours is as close to ‘universal’ as we think we could get,” Manno said.

He dismissed the argument that people need to take the initiative to be registered.
“People either have a right to vote or they don’t,” he said. “It’s government’s job to make people’s lives easier and better, not throw up barriers to exercising their rights.”

In the House, Democratic Del. Eric G. Luedtke of Montgomery County is championing a slightly different approach. Instead of automatically registering people, workers at the MVA and social services agencies would be required to tell people they will be registered to vote unless they would like to opt out.

Luedtke said that seemingly subtle difference may avoid potential legal problems with Manno’s method, which Luedtke said could possibly jeopardize green card holders’ immigration status by inadvertently registering them as voters.
Regardless of the approach, Luedtke said, the state can develop a more secure, more inclusive system than relying on volunteers with clipboards at voter registration drives.
“The current way we do registration is a mess,” he said. “You have someone out in front of a Safeway.”

California and Oregon have previously provided for automatic voter registration. Oregon has one of the highest voter turnout percentages in the country – it also provides for vote by mail for all voters.

This proposal is a positive stone in the right direction. Our archaic voter registration systems in this country are a disgrace that creates barriers to getting voters registered. It’s good to see both House and Senate leadership getting behind this bill. Let’s hope it passes this year.

UPDATE: Delegate Eric Luedtke advises that there is a team of delegates working together on the House version of the bill: Shelly Hettleman, Mary Washington, Alonzo Washington, Sandy Rosenberg, David Moon, Will Smith, Kirill Reznik, and Sheila Hixson. Always happy to spread the credit for good ideas.

Supreme Court Gives New Life To MD Gerrymander Case

I’ve written about this previously, and today the Supreme Court breathed new life into a gerrymandering claim against Maryland’s 2011 congressional redistricting plan. By a unanimous vote of 9-0, the Court (per Justice Scalia) sent the case back to the district court to convene a three judge panel to hear the case on the merits. As previously noted, the precise issue before the court was procedural so this doesn’t mean that the claim will prevail. But please note this language – you can bet a dollar the three judges hearing the case will:

Without expressing any view on the merits of petitioners’ claim, we believe it easily clears Goosby’s low bar; after all, the amended complaint specifically challenges Maryland’s apportionment “along the lines suggested by Justice Kennedy in his concurrence in Vieth [v. Jubelirer, 541 U. S. 267 (2004)].” App. to Brief in Opposition 44. Although the Vieth plurality thought all political gerrymandering claims nonjusticiable, JUSTICE KENNEDY, concurring in the judgment, surmised that if “a State did impose burdens and restrictions on groups or persons by reason of their views, there would likely be a First Amendment violation, unless the State shows some compelling interest. . . . Where it is alleged that a gerryman- der had the purpose and effect of imposing burdens on a disfavored party and its voters, the First Amendment may offer a sounder and more prudential basis for intervention than does the Equal Protection Clause.” Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U. S. 267, 315 (2004). Whatever “wholly in- substantial,” “obviously frivolous,” etc., mean, at a minimum they cannot include a plea for relief based on a legal theory put forward by a Justice of this Court and uncontradicted by the majority in any of our cases. Accordingly, the District Judge should not have dismissed the claim as “constitutionally insubstantial” under Goosby. 

I was an appellate law clerk here in Maryland and I’ve been doing appeals my entire career. When an appeals court sends a case back to a lower court on procedural grounds and finds a way to address the merits of the case, that’s a total giveaway. Scalia is sending a clear message to the three judge panel who will hear the case that this is a legitimate claim that needs to be taken seriously.

You hear that ringing noise in the distance? That’s the death knell for Maryland’s 2011 redistricting plan. It just got a whole lot louder this morning – let’s watch and see what happens. This was a big first step in the right direction, not just for Maryland but for the entire country.

MoCo Elections Board Violated Open Meetings Law

Back a couple of months ago, the Montgomery County Board of Elections (with a Republican majority as a result of Larry Hogan’s victory in 2014) attempted to shift two early voting sites from Burtonsville and Chevy Chase to Brookeville and Potomac. This created a huge uproar, which resulted in the proposed changes being rejected by the State Board and the original EV sites being reinstated.

As part of the Democratic response on the issue, the County Council held hearings at which it was revealed that the three Republican members of the Board had all participated in at least one conference call with the county GOP central committee. A complaint was filed with the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board, which this week concluded that the actions of the GOP Board of Elections members had in fact violated the Open Meetings Act.

The decision of the OMCB is here for those nerdy enough to want to read it. Kudos to Paul Bessel for initiating and pursuing this action to its conclusion.

BOE Approval Includes Promise To Seek 10th EV Site

Per an email from the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, part of the approval of the nine original early vote sites was the promise by the MCDCC and the county’s Annapolis delegation to seek a 10th county early vote site during the 2016 session. I assume that this 10th site, if authorized, will end up being located in Potomac.

A critical part of this decision is that the MCDCC and State Delegation made a commitment to submit legislation at the beginning of the Legislative Session in January to add a 10th early voting center in Montgomery County for the 2016 election. The County Council also made a commitment to establish a 10th early voting center. 

  

BOE To Restore BOTH Disputed EV Sites

The Montgomery County Board of Elections meets at 2:30 this afternoon to “reconsider” the nine early vote sites for the 2016 elections. According to this tweet a few minutes ago from Council President George Leventhal, BOE president Jim Shalleck intends to restore both disputed EV sites – one in Burtonsville and one in Chevy Chase. I can’t make the meeting but this would be very good news.