First the bad news: Voter registration in Maryland is a disaster, and the state faces the prospect of a federal lawsuit and paying big legal fees. Now the good news: The state can fix the problem in a way that avoids litigation — and actually saves money.
The federal Motor Voter Act — officially, the National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA — requires the state to offer every citizen who uses a Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) office, public assistance or disability services office a chance to register to vote. The agencies also must assist voters in completing the registration forms.
The state has been violating that law. A Sun investigation established that nearly 25 percent of Maryland citizens who went to the MVA and said they wanted to register to vote were unable to do so.
Citizens are most likely to be frustrated in their efforts to register to vote at MVA offices in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. The fact that the state's predominantly African-American areas are victimized by current procedures is especially disturbing. This disparity indicates that the state's NVRA failure may also violate the Voting Rights Act.
The problem in Maryland, as in other states, is that voter registration has been tacked onto the agencies' duties. It is something extra that the employees have to do. It is not surprising that some fail to get around to the "extra" work.
What is surprising is that the federal law obligation has not been incorporated into the routine of Maryland agencies, even though the NVRA was passed in 1992. Babies born then are now eligible to vote, but they may not be able to if they try to register at the MVA agencies.
Especially after all of these years, Maryland's voter registration breakdown is an embarrassment. It also is a very serious problem. Any violation of federal law is serious.
Fortunately, the Maryland voter registration problem can be solved easily and in a way that saves money for state and local government: Make voter registration automatic. Build it into the routine of each bureaucracy, so that the information for every qualified customer of the MVA or a public assistance or disability services office automatically goes on the list of citizens eligible to vote.
Automatic registration involves only a few keystrokes of a computer. It can eliminate the current duplication of effort involved in trying to fill out separate registration forms, moving the forms from agency to agency, scanning the voter registration applications, deciphering voters' handwriting, typing information into a computer, and proofreading the information to correct the inevitable typos.
All of that unnecessary duplication costs money, and each step in the Rube Goldberg process is an invitation to a breakdown.
With automatic registration, all of the necessary information is checked for accuracy at the outset, while the voter is sitting in the agency. It goes straight into computers and only needs to pop up on the voter registration list.
Automatic registration also ensures the integrity of the voter rolls by eliminating false registrations. Some voters are concerned that false registrations can facilitate voter fraud. Although this doesn't seem to be a real problem in Maryland, it is a real concern of some and at least a potential problem.
Automatic agency registration eliminates that danger. Agencies already verify the identity of each applicant for their services as a matter of office routine. Maryland will not give you a driver's licenses or an assistance check without making sure of who you are and that you are eligible.
Virtually everyone uses one or another of the NVRA agencies. Individuals have strong reasons to keep their address and other information up to date. The machinery is in place to screen out those who are ineligible to vote for any reason.
The current system in Maryland is badly broken. The state has the opportunity, however, to fix the problem, avoid a costly lawsuit, and save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Maryland can be in the forefront of voter registration instead of bringing up the rear.
The one thing the state cannot do is wait another 18 years — or even 18 weeks. The state has a target on its back. It's time to get moving.
John Tanner is a former chief of the Justice Department's Voting Section. He currently is a private voting rights attorney in Washington, D.C. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.