ACORN sues over state law banning paying people to register voters

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September 09, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN STAFF

A community advocacy group is suing the State Board of Elections over an obscure rule the board says prohibits organizations from paying people to register voters.

Leaders of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which filed the lawsuit yesterday in Montgomery County Circuit Court, say banning payment of voter-registration workers violates the group's freedom of speech.

A decision in the case could affect how door-to-door voter registration drives are conducted by relatively small advocacy groups, making it more - or less - attractive for people to spend their time helping others to register.

ACORN has paid about 75 people up to $50 a day during past election cycles to register voters. In 2002, the group registered 22,000 residents statewide, ACORN organizer Mitch Klein said.

Now, he said, the effort has been stymied. The group received a letter from the Baltimore City Board of Elections last year alerting it to the prohibition.

"What's killing us right now is, we can't move a program," Klein said. "We know that low- and moderate-income people aren't getting registered."

Maryland code prohibits "voter registration volunteers" from being paid unless they work for a labor union, a political organization or certain other groups. Voter registration volunteers, or VRVs, receive training from local election boards on how to complete registration forms.

Several election officials countered that anyone - including those who had not received training and become a VRV - could register people to vote. In those cases, an organization could pay workers.

An administrator for the Montgomery County Board of Elections, which was also named in the lawsuit, echoed that opinion. Paul Valette, the county's election operations manager, said anyone could print a registration form off the Internet, help someone fill it out and mail it in.

"Anybody can hand out registration forms," Valette said. "If we receive it from somebody who's not a trained volunteer, it's just like receiving it in the mail."

But that contradicts instructions posted on Internet sites for the Montgomery County and Maryland election boards.

"In order to register others, you need to attend a class and be certified by the Elections Office as a Voter Registration Volunteer," Montgomery County's site states.

And, according to the Maryland board's site: "Any individual or group wishing to distribute statewide voter registration applications and/or assist others in the completion of these forms must be certified as a Voter Registration Volunteer."

State election officials referred questions on the lawsuit to the state attorney general's office. Mark Davis, an assistant attorney general, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because he had not seen it.

ACORN lawyer Steve Baughman said he believes Maryland's regulation is the only one of its kind in the nation. "This state regulation effectively silences organizations like ACORN that wish to register low and moderate-income voters," he said in a statement.

Spokespeople for the state Republican and Democratic parties said their registration workers are not paid but generally do receive training.

More than 3 million state residents are registered to vote and, according to a state Board of Elections report, more than 18,000 people were registered by volunteers last October, the month before the last presidential election.

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