Motor voter efforts come up short

Our view: If Delaware can make it easy for voters to register, why can't the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration?

February 23, 2011

Officials at the Maryland State Board of Elections estimate that about 622,165 Maryland residents who are qualified to vote are not registered to do so. In Baltimore alone, that's about 97,000 people. Statewide elections have been decided by much less.

Ensuring that the eligible are registered to vote ought to be a top priority of government at every level. Since Congress approved the Motor Voter Act in 1993, it has been the obligation of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (and its counterparts in other states) to offer those who apply for a driver's license the opportunity to register to vote.

The law makes perfect sense. Most people are already providing the same basic information — name, address, etc. — at the MVA office. Throw in party affiliation, and the paperwork ought to be completed on the spot.

But the law hasn't been executed particularly well in this state. Those who show up in MVA offices are, indeed, asked if they want to register. But then they are obligated to sign and return separate forms — a far cry from the integrated process that the law's advocates had envisioned.

As a result, thousands of people who have started the registration process at the MVA have never actually registered — a failure rate of perhaps one in four. MVA officials blame the applicants, but that's only half the problem. The agency's failure to make registration as convenient as possible is just as much to blame.

This should not be difficult. Most of the excuses offered by the MVA are unconvincing. Voter registration may not be the agency's primary function, but it's had this important obligation for 18 years, more than enough time to learn how to do the job right.

Nor is it particularly compelling that MVA clerks may be uncomfortable with asking a person's party affiliation. Somebody has to do it. And surely, any clerk who doesn't mind asking about height, weight and whether someone wants to donate his or her body parts upon death can withstand the discomfort of learning whether that person is a Democrat, Republican, other party or unaffiliated.

If the MVA can shoulder the burden of confirming an applicant's citizenship under Real ID (a process that is more time-consuming and requires far more technical expertise of the agency's clerks), it shouldn't be so great a stretch to develop a voter registration process better integrated with driver's license applications and renewals.

Granted, voter registration is bound to add some minutes to the process at a time when the agency is trying to shorten, not lengthen, transaction time. But this would seem a reasonable trade-off — if it means thousands more voters are added to the rolls.

As it happens, the folks at the MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie don't have all that far to travel to find a good example: In Delaware, the process is all-electronic, as drivers need only touch a few keys and sign a touchpad, and the information is whisked off to the state elections board.

Critics claim it could cost millions of dollars to develop a system, but Delaware spent just $600,000. That's a small price to pay to ensure that all the people who want to vote and are qualified to do so have that opportunity.

Nor should this be the last word on the subject. State elections officials ought to be developing other outreach opportunities including their own web-based registration process. Mailing back forms (or even piggybacking on an MVA transaction) was fine by 20th century standards; advances in technology should make the process considerably more convenient still.

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