WASHINGTON – Maryland is already doing many of the things that will be required under a national election reform law signed Tuesday by President Bush, state election officials said.
While they are still trying to figure out the specific impact of the $3.86 billion Help America Vote Act of 2002, officials noted that Maryland already allows provisional balloting, is compiling a statewide voter registration list and has embarked on standardizing voting equipment.
“There’s no doubt about it, certainly most of the provisions in this bill are things that Maryland already decided to do,” said Art Neill, a spokesman for the Maryland Secretary of State’s office.
The law guarantees at least $5 million per state in federal funds for election reform, but state officials are unsure exactly how much they will get, or what the money will be used for. The state will submit a plan detailing how it would use the funds and what they need to do to comply with all provisions of the law.
One thing the state is not currently doing is requiring that first-time voters who register by mail present some form of valid identification at the polls. Maryland Elections Administrator Linda Lamone said state lawmakers have repeatedly shot down any attempts to require identification at the polls, but that it will be required nationally in 2004 under the federal bill.
“If it’s required by federal law, we will meet” the requirement, Lamone said.
That provision was a sticking point in negotiations over the bill, with opponents worried that requiring identification might discourage minorities and low-income voters. The language was added in the Senate.
“The concern was we would be disenfranchising legitimate voters because they didn’t have a drivers license or utility bill in their name,” said Stacey Farnen, a spokeswoman for Rep. Steny Hoyer, the lead Democratic sponsor of the House version of the bill. But Farnen said Hoyer, a Mechanicsville Democrat, “didn’t think it was worth killing the bill over.”
The bill, which was hailed by Bush as landmark voting rights legislation, mandates that, by 2006, states let voters verify their ballots, provide secret ballots for the disabled, and adopt a statewide definition of what constitutes a vote.
Maryland lawmakers voted in 2001 to require those procedures by 2006, when the state’s 24 jurisdictions must have adopted a uniform voting system. So far, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Dorchester and Allegany counties are the first to use a new touch-screen voting system that will eventually become the standard.
The state and the four counties are splitting the $13.2 million cost to buy 4,678 new voting machines. Lamone estimates it will cost about $35 million to outfit the other 20 jurisdictions with the new voting machines.
“I think we are in pretty good shape,” Lamone said. “We have been working since 1997 to basically build a total election management computerized system. And voting equipment is the last piece of the pie in that equation.”
The federal law also mandates “provisional voting,” which lets an individual cast a ballot even if his name is not on the registration list. The ballot would only be counted if the voter’s eligibility is eventually confirmed. Provisional voting will be required in all states by 2004.
Provisional voting took effect in Maryland in September. The legislature voted in April to let election judges or directors grant a temporary certificate of registration to voters who show up at their precinct but are not on the registration list.
“You have so many voter registration transactions going on, that it’s possible that somebody gets lost in the shuffle,” Lamone said. “It’s a safety net, of sorts. Somebody shouldn’t be penalized because of a mistake or lost piece of mail.”
The federal act also mandates that all states have a statewide voter registration database by 2006, so lists of voters are updated and accurate. Lamone said Maryland maintains a statewide database, which reflects when changes are made to county voter lists, but she could not say if the state’s system meets the federal law’s requirements.
Maryland has enacted voting reforms that go beyond the provisions of the federal law.
The legislature voted in April to let convicted felons cast a ballot three years after they have completed their sentences. While that change takes effect next year, Lamone said granting voting rights to felons will be hard to administer.
The state also has continuous registration, which means that a person does not have to re-register if they move from one county to another.