Before the Maryland General Assembly Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee
March 1, 2018
My name is Wendy Fields and I am the Executive Director of the Democracy Initiative, a dynamic coalition of issue-based groups working collectively to advance democracy reforms across the country. We are 64 partners from the labor, environment, and civil rights movement representing over 40 million members – tens of thousands of whom live and advocate for kitchen table issues in Maryland. Our shared vision for a 21st century democracy is clear: all citizens should be able to participate freely in the democratic process and have their voices heard. A vital part of participation is voting – it is our most powerful tool in democracy.
The Democracy Initiative has mobilized members across the country to stand up for a democracy that works for all. Participation is essential for our members to be able to advocate for the kitchen table issues that matter most – from clean water to criminal justice reforms to a living wage. In a climate where wealthy donors or big money developers and corporations try to influence our politics and policies, the ability for everyday people to exercise their right to vote is all that more essential.
As Americans, we believe democracy is for all, yet it has been a slow and sometimes painful and bloody process to expand access to all eligible voters. Removing barriers to participation and allowing citizens the freedom to participate as they choose are central to delivering on the promises of democracy. To achieve a reflective democracy – where the needs of the people are reflected in our budgets, our policies, and our programs – all eligible Marylanders must have the ability to register to vote.
Millions of people want a democracy where they can freely participate, cast a vote securely, and know that vote will be counted. I applaud Maryland’s existing efforts to allow individuals to register through interactions with the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration; however, this may not capture all individuals who are eligible. The Secure and Accessible Registration Act (SARA) will give Marylanders a secure and seamless process for registering to vote and give seniors, young people, the disability community and more, a path to participation.
Today, I want to share why our member groups are passionate about automatic voter registration programs, like SARA, and are mobilizing to pass this reform across the country.
Automatic Voter Registration is the First Step to Civic Participation
We know that voting is an entry point for civic engagement. For DI membership groups, being registered to vote is a critical part to how our members advocate successfully for core issues around climate, economic, and social justice. Our members are determined to hold elected leaders accountable on public policy, but to make that possible we need to vote.
There are nine states plus the District of Columbia that have automatic voter registration. In Oregon, the first state to implement AVR, there was significant increases in voter turnout. Demos, a DI partner, conducted research on the impact of AVR in Oregon. Their study found that “ninety-five percent of those who were registered with AVR and voted in the 2016 election were first-time voters.”i
According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4 eligible Americans (51 million people) were on the sidelines in 2012 when it came to having a voice in our democracy. Some may write off these individuals as being unmotivated to participate but that is not the case. The 2014 U.S. Census found that at least 4.1 million Americans tried to register but were turned away because of missed registration deadlines.ii In Michigan, a voter needs to register 60 days prior to the election – this is often months before many people are informed or knowledgeable about the candidates and issues that will be on the ballot. The same census study found that nearly two million voters did not know how to register and 735,000 eligible voters encountered language barriers.
Knowledge about when and how to register is a critical issue. There are 19 million formerly incarcerated people who are eligible to vote in the U.S. but unaware their ability to vote has been restored. Maryland should be proud for taking the important step of restoring the right to vote for 40,000 returning citizens but the work does not end there. Our government has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure democracy works for all. There are millions of voters that want to participate but cannot because of unnecessary structural barriers. We can tear down these barriers with SARA.
We Can Deliver on the Promise of Democracy
American democracy is built on the promise of a representative government where we all have equal political representation – regardless of political affiliation, race, gender, or income. In another study by Demos, it is estimated that implementing automatic voter registration would enable 27 million eligible voters to participate in elections nationwide. That’s transformative politics for all types of communities – young people, racial/ethnic minorities, seniors, and low income citizens.
Our members are mobilizing in Maryland and across the country to make sure that promise is available to all. In Illinois, DI partner groups mobilized members to urge the governor to support automatic voter registration after AVR passed unanimously in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly. The state added nearly 1 million eligible voters to their rolls- that’s more families who can advocate for child care and improved schools, more workers who can fight for fair wages and safe workplaces, and more communities standing up to protect their air, water, and land from pollution. As elected leaders in Maryland, you all play a critical role in delivering on this promise.
Nationally, we know we need to shift our priorities to creating secure and modern elections systems so all Americans have confidence when they participate in elections. The U.S. relies on a 19th century model for registering voters in a 21st century world. People are now more mobile, yet the process to update your registration varies from state to state and is not seamless across state agencies. Why do we spend tax dollars on outdated registration systems instead of modernizing our system to be more efficient and using the savings to support critical services for seniors or children or workers?
Many of our national and state partners actively participate in voter registration drives. While our partner groups are ready and willing to help make sure all eligible voters are registered, this takes valuable resources away from advocating for the core issues that our groups fight for on a daily basis. We want a representative democracy, where our government services work for us and elected leaders are focused on addressing the kitchen table issues impacting our communities.
Maryland Can Be a Leader on Automatic Voter Registration
The District of Columbia is the only other jurisdiction in the Mid-Atlantic to enact automatic voter registration. Maryland can step up and be a leader for this region and the nation on expanding automatic voter registration and supporting increased participation.
Imagine a Maryland where when you move to another county you don’t worry about whether or not your registration is correct, you know it is updated because it was taken care of when you updated your license. Imagine a Maryland where your neighbor who has limited mobility can access critical paratransit services and register to vote so they can speak up for the disability community. Imagine a Maryland where a parent on public assistance not only can provide healthy food for their children but also register to vote and advocate for a living wage.
We can make this a reality for the thousands of Marylanders and DI partner groups who see a 21st century democracy is possible.
The Secure and Accessible Registration Act is about streamlining our registration process so we have a democracy that works for all. Our members who are on the front lines fighting for our communities know that automatic voter registration is vital to the work they are doing.
There is overwhelming bipartisan support for automatic voter registration. The states that have passed and are considering AVR include Republican- and Democratic-controlled legislatures. The elected leaders in all these states have recognized that a reflective democracy begins with the people, and modernizing our elections systems is critical – especially in the face of other threats.
A stronger democracy starts with citizens being at the center of our policymaking and our politics. I am just one voice but there are thousands of people in Maryland – and millions across the country – who are demanding a democracy that works for all, not the few.
Let us be the champions for a more efficient and representative democracy by passing SARA.