In Maryland, A Quiet Loss Of Voting Rights

By Richard Boltuck
Published December 2nd 2007 in The Washington Post
Maryland will hold its primary election on Feb. 12. Roughly 50,000 young Marylanders who under past practice would be eligible to vote in the primary will not be allowed to cast ballots. The number of young people losing their right to vote is almost equivalent to the population of the city of Rockville. My daughter is one of them. How did this happen when not one word on Maryland's law books has changed?

On Dec. 11, 2006, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that Maryland's new early voting statute violated the state Constitution, which the court held specifies a single day for an election.

The court's decision did not address the distinct, long-standing Maryland statute that permits citizens to register to vote if they will be 18 by the date of the next general election. Until now, this statute has been consistently understood to mean that Maryland residents may register to vote at age 17 in primary elections -- if they will turn 18 on or before the next general election. This practice was entirely uncontroversial and unchallenged.

Yet, on Dec. 19, 2006, just eight days after the court issued its early-voting decision, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Mark Davis advised the State Board of Elections that in his view the court's opinion implied that the Maryland constitution prohibits all 17-year-olds from voting in primary elections -- even those who will turn 18 by the next general election. In light of this advice, the board decided that Maryland 17-year-olds cannot register to vote in the February primary unless they are 18 by primary election day.

The board's new policy, which conflicts with the voter registration statute, was not reported in the board's contemporaneous public meeting minutes. Similarly, the assistant attorney general's advice does not appear on the attorney general's Web site.

More significant, Maryland's state senators and delegates were not informed of the board's radical departure from historical practice. The legislature's 2007 90-Day Report, on which lawmakers depend, explains that the court struck down early voting but mentions nothing about the board's disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of residents.

This year the Maryland Senate proposed a constitutional amendment to undo the court's prohibition against early voting. But no one in the legislature proposed a remedy to restore the right of those who will turn 18 between the primary election and the next general election to vote in the primary -- a far more serious consequence than the inconvenience entailed by the prohibition against early voting.

Maryland's historical practice recognized, reasonably, that for 18-year-olds to participate in general elections, they must be permitted to fully participate in the associated primary elections that select the candidates for the general election ballot.

The absence of media or legislative attention to Maryland's disenfranchisement of 50,000 residents in February's primary is mystifying. It's time to insist that Maryland officials confront this matter responsibly and with urgency.