Mfume sparks voter ID debate

Ballot dispute proves need for tougher rule, law's proponents say

`Truly an honor system'

May 12, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Gertrude Walker sums up Maryland's reluctance to make voters present identification when casting ballots in one word: unbelievable.

The elections supervisor in St. Lucie County, Fla., noted that her state requires two pieces of identification from voters on Election Day.

Walker also said that Florida state legislators recently approved another law requiring voters to take a photo ID with them to the polls.

The issue of voter identification in Maryland has resurfaced after revelations last week that Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and possible mayoral candidate, voted in Baltimore elections while living in Baltimore County.

Although bills requiring voter identification have repeatedly failed to win approval in the state legislature, proponents point to the Mfume case as another reason to force Maryland voters to prove who they are and where they live on Election Day.

"Maryland's system is truly an honor system," said Walker, who serves as parliamentarian for the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Elections Officials and Treasurers. "This day and age, almost everyone has identification."

A recent survey by the State Administrative Board of Election Laws showed that Maryland is not alone. Eighteen of 28 states responding said they require no identification for voters on Election Day.

Although Baltimore has lost about 33,000 voters since 1994, city election officials say it is difficult to determine how many former residents who move to surrounding counties return to vote in their old neighborhoods.

Barbara E. Jackson, the city's elections director, estimates that each election, the election board handles 500 to 1,000 calls from precinct judges in the city's 325 voting precincts trying to determine the residency status of individual voters.

"It becomes a major problem," said Jackson, who supports requiring voter identification. "It is a headache."

The last attempt to require voters to present identification failed in the state legislature last year. The bill stemmed from Republican complaints about the 1994 election, in which Democrat Gov. Parris N. Glendening defeated Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey by 6,000 votes.

A 1995 task force headed by former U.S. Attorney George Beall made several recommendations to improve the integrity of voting in the state. But efforts to make voters present identification when they cast their ballots never made the list.

"That was something that some of us thought was a good idea, but the majority of the committee thought it was intrusive," said Beall, a Baltimore attorney. "The prevailing majority practice across the country is to require voters to identify themselves, much more than we do here in Maryland."

Mfume's matter has been clouded because he owned property in the city until October 1998. State election leaders say Mfume might have maintained his right to vote in the city by failing to register to vote in the county and by maintaining his driver's license address in Baltimore.

Mfume said yesterday he could not comment on the voting matter because it is under review by State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.

Opponents of voter identification legislation worry that it would further inhibit already low voter turnout, particularly among poor and senior citizens who are less likely to own a car and might not have driver's licenses.

Florida's photo ID requirement has been delayed until the U.S. Department of Justice can rule whether it will intimidate the poor and prevent them from voting.

In the 1996 presidential election, fewer than half of Maryland voters, 46 percent, cast ballots. Only 11 other states showed worse turnout.

"We trust that when you come in to vote, you are who you say you are," said Gene M. Raynor, former Baltimore and Maryland elections administrator who opposes requiring identification. "And you are supposed to register from where you sleep."

Mfume, a former West Baltimore congressman and city councilman, moved to Catonsville in 1995 and last week called his voting in the city in 1996 and 1998 a mistake.

People who criticize requiring voter identification, such as Raynor, say Mfume knew he was violating state voting laws by casting his ballots at his old city precinct. The bottom line, they say, is that the integrity of elections rests on the integrity of each voter.

In 1995, Montanarelli charged seven city elections workers, including Raynor's sister, with "false voting" for casting ballots at Baltimore precincts while living in the county.

Five of the workers pleaded guilty, paid fines of $100 to $150 and received a year's probation.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said voters should be required to present identification showing proof of residency when they arrive at the polls.

"For crying out loud, you have to present more identification at the grocery store," said Skullney, leader of the political watchdog group. "We're talking about the most fundamental right we have, we should at least provide that level of integrity."

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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