Bill offers registration at last minute--on voting day

February 26, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- In Maine, a citizen can walk into a town clerk's office on election day, register and vote.

If the clerk recognizes the would-be voter as a town resident, no other identification is necessary.

In Minnesota, a similar system is in operation.

In Maryland, a would-be voter must sign up no later than 29 days before the election -- or lose the right to vote.

"Just as interest in a campaign begins," said Michael H. Davis, a Baltimore lawyer and leader of a group committed to removing legal barriers to registration, "Maryland stops allowing people to vote."

Voter turnout in Maryland and throughout the United States lags far behind that of most industrialized nations, he observed. Some 60 million Americans, in all, are not registered to vote.

Yet when they are registered, they tend to vote.

The major problem, Mr. Davis said, is the presence of artificial barriers to registration.

Maryland would become more like Maine and Minnesota if the legislature passed a bill sponsored by Delegate D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington County, who is majority leader of the House of Delegates, and by Delegate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-Baltimore County.

Their bill also aims to give more Marylanders access to early registration by including voter registration forms in tax bills, offering them to people registering their automobiles and presenting them to people applying for welfare.

The bill has some opposition, however.

Gene M. Raynor, administrator of the State Administrative Board of Election Laws, fears the proposals could lead to fraud. "Maryland is not quite ready," he said.

The state chairwoman of Mr. Ehrlich's party, Joyce L. Terhes, does not support his bill.

"I'm absolutely and truly opposed," Ms. Terhes said. She said voter turnout wouldn't change "until we as elected officials and party people discuss issues, educate the citizens and get them to the polls."

Ms. Terhes also said she thought the bill was a ploy to stimulate a catch-up game for the Democrats, who have been lagging behind recently in the registration game.

Nathan Landow, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he thought his party had to support the removal of barriers to voting.

"The goal," he said, "is to expand the franchise."

At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Poole and Mr. Ehrlich largely rejected concerns of fraud and said they thought political fears generated by their bill -- the Universal Voter Registration Act -- would be their greatest hurdle.

Under their bill, a registrant on the day of a primary or general election would have to produce a Maryland driver's license showing a current address or an identification card. Registration would also be permitted if another registered voter in the same precinct signed a statement, under oath and subject to charges of perjury, affirming that the would-be registrant lived in the precinct.

A voter who wanted to register the simplest way -- by mailing in a completed form -- would not be affected by the bill; he would have to meet the current 29-day deadline.

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