GOP whittles away at Dems' registration advantage

On Maryland Politics

January 16, 1991|By Peter Kumpa

IF VOTER registration trends of the last four years continue, a magic moment for the Republican Party could come as early as this June. By some calculations, the Maryland GOP will break the Democrats' long-held 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration by that date. Being on the short end of a 1.9-to-1 registration disadvantage might not seem much of a victory, but it will inspire partisan Republicans to raise their glasses in a toast to the future.

The ratios are statewide figures. They include Baltimore city. TC Without the city, the Democratic advantage is already below the 2-to-1 margin. And outside the city and Prince George's County, Republicans showed in last year's elections that they are fully competitive.

Democrats don't intend to stand still against the threat of a real two-party system. The best thing they could do to save themselves would be to throw out President Bush next year and elect a popular president of their own. Registration trends are national. Young voters look to popular heroes when choosing their party. Over the past decade, which was dominated by President Reagan and now President Bush, the political advantage has been decidedly Republican.

The future now is too blurred to calculate which party might have an advantage. With war abroad and recession at home on the horizon, all presidential campaigns have been placed on hold.

Maryland Democrats, however, believe that voter registration should be raised significantly. And if it were, they are confident they would be helped by bringing more apathetic citizens into the political process.

The party will be pushing several initiatives in the General Assembly this year to make voter registration easier.

One suggestion is to include a voter registration form along with the application for a driver's license. One could get the right to drive and vote at the same time. The House of Representatives passed such a bill last year but GOP resistance in the Senate killed the effort.

Several states, including Minnesota, Colorado and Iowa, already have such combined forms. In a half dozen other states all those applying for a driver's license are asked if they want to vote. If so, they are handed the proper form. Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Landow has a task force studying these programs.

Democrats would also like to see voter registration forms handed out more freely at state agencies that provide welfare, unemployment, Medicare, Medicaid and other benefits. As things stand now, registration forms are usually available at such agencies but they are not given out unless an applicant specifically asks for one.

Jurors in state courts are now chosen from voter registration lists. Democrats see this as "the biggest detriment" to voting in the state. Too many people don't want the bother of serving on juries. The process can be time consuming; in some jurisdictions a juror can be called for as long as month. One easy way out is simply not registering to vote.

Democrats will be proposing a change this year to selecting jurors from Motor Vehicle Administration lists rather than from voter rolls. The MVA rolls are far larger and presumably would draw from a better, fairer cross-section of the public. One Worcester County judge has been experimenting with the system.

Such a change could also be argued on the principle of fairness in the criminal justice system. Simple inertia and tradition have prevented change in the past. Even if the change were not made mandatory, Democrats would like to see the legislature endorse the idea and would encourage counties to use it.

Another Democratic legislative initiative will be to make absentee voting simpler and easier. Under present law, voters can only use the absentee ballot if they expect to be out of the state on Election Day, or if they are ill or disabled.

Democrats would extend to all voters the absentee privilege. In many states it is common to permit voting by mail as well as in person. Alaska, California, Kansas, Oregon and Washington all recently passed laws to this effect.

Chairman Landow will continue to press for moving the state's presidential primary up to the first Tuesday in March next year. By having a March 3 primary, Maryland would follow New Hampshire by just one week. The state would draw greater attention by such a move. A real primary here might spark the interest new voters even if war and recession don't do the trick.

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