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House Election Bills Start Moving in Md. Senate, as Biden Blasts Laws Limiting Voting Access

A ballot drop-off box for the June primary outside the Edward Bohrer Recreation Center in Gaithersburg. File photo

With dust from “crossover day” still settling in the Maryland General Assembly, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee took up several House-approved election reforms Thursday.

Some of those proposals had won unanimous approval from the House of Delegates: House Bill 247, sponsored by Del. Michele J. Guyton (D-Baltimore County) would require that election judges get more training on how to help voters who need additional assistance, including people with disabilities.

Ande Kolp, executive director of the Arc of Maryland, told committee members that Guyton’s proposal would encourage people with mobility disabilities, as well as parents of children with disabilities, to vote.

“We like the provisions of the bill to create some training and post notices for voters with disabilities so they know they can access this …,” Kolp said. “And we believe that this bill is moving us one step toward ensuring greater access to the right to vote for people with disabilities.”

Another bill unanimously approved in the lower chamber, House Bill 369, sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) would require election service contractors, such as companies that provide online voter registration systems, to tell state election officials if any aspect of their product was made outside of the United States. Rosenberg told lawmakers the language is meant to mirror provisions in the proposed “For the People Act” federal election reform.

Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Vice Chair Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) suggested adding more oversight to the State Board of Elections procurement process as part of the bill to ensure its provisions are followed. Her own bill, Senate Bill 747, would expand the State Board of Elections and would require additional qualifications for some of its members, including expertise in procurement. But that proposal hasn’t been sent to the Senate floor.

“I worry about the lack of oversight and accountability sometimes,” Kagan said. “I think having other cooks in the kitchen on something like this might be useful to make sure that nothing gets overlooked or slipped through.”

Committee Chair Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) noted that Rosenberg’s bill builds on a measure passed by the Senate two years ago that requires election contractors to disclose “ownership, investment, or avenues for influence that a foreign entity may hold in the business.”

Lawmakers also mulled a proposal by Del. Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City) that would ban people from holding an elected public office and a political party office at the same time, and from simultaneously running for elected public offices and political party offices, such as membership on a party’s state or local central committee.

Boyce said the proposal is meant to keep one person from having undue influence by holding a powerful party position and elected office at the same time. Otherwise, a state legislator who is also the member of a county’s party central committee would be among central committee members who recommend to the governor an appointee to replace a legislator who leaves office before the end of a term.

Sen. Jason C. Gallion (R-Harford) suggested amending the bill to allow an individual to run for both offices at the same time, so long as they can’t simultaneously hold both offices. He said he ran for the state Senate and for a central committee position at the same time in 2018, but resigned from the party position once he was elected to the Senate.

Boyce said she doesn’t think a candidate should be able to run for both at the same time, but said she was open to such an amendment if the original intent of her bill is maintained.

Early voting reform

Senators also took up a proposal from House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) that would expand the number of early voting centers, based on population, in some counties. Under current law, counties with fewer than 125,000 registered voters are required to have only one early voting center. Luedkte’s proposal would set a one-center requirement for counties with fewer than 50,000 registered voters, but would require more early voting centers for counties with 50,000 or more registered voters.

Access to early voting centers became a focal point of the Nov. 3 election last year when Del. Brian Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) charged that the lack of a second early voting center in his county amounted to voter suppression.

“Over the last year, the pandemic forced us to rethink a lot about our elections,” Luedtke said. “And one of the lessons that at least I learned, in interacting with my constituents, was that voters like options.”

The bill also requires local election boards to consider, when determining the location of early voting centers, such factors as accessibility to historically disenfranchised communities and proximity to “dense concentrations of voters.” The proposal passed the House in a 100-36 vote earlier this month.

The Senate panel also took up a proposal from Crosby, which would require that, if an early voting center is located within a half mile of a local fixed bus route, passengers must be allowed “to the maximum extent practicable” to disembark at the entrance of an open early voting center. That bill passed the House this month in a 104-32 vote.

Crosby told senators that, at the only early voting center in his county last year, voters were let off “on the side of a highway” and had to walk up a hill to get to the voting center. He said the measure could help elderly voters or voters with disabilities because they wouldn’t have to walk so far to vote.

Pinsky pressed Crosby on how the bill would affect more urban areas, where it could lengthen bus trips for other passengers. Crosby said that was his “biggest concern” about the bill, and the reason he had to scrap a version of the bill last year. He said he worked with the Maryland Association of Counties to allow local governments more leeway with the bill.

Biden blasts efforts to cut voting access in some states

As Maryland lawmakers take up measures to expand early voting, legislators in other states are looking to restrict ballot access.

Georgia has been the epicenter of such efforts, with a final vote looming on a GOP-drafted bill that would overhaul early and absentee voting laws, restrict access to ballot drop boxes, and even criminalize handing out water and snacks to voters as they wait in line.

President Biden on Thursday, in his first formal news conference since taking office, blasted Republican-controlled state legislatures that are seeking to restrict voting access, labeling those attempts “sick” and “un-American.”

Biden said he would work on educating the American public about proposals being shepherded through state legislatures, saying the Republicans he knows “find this despicable.”

Georgia found itself in the national spotlight following last year’s presidential election, when former President Trump made baseless claims of election irregularities and fraud. Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took a high-profile stand in defense of Georgia’s election integrity after Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes in November.

But Georgia is far from the only state seeking to tighten voting rules, raising the concerns of voting-rights advocates across the country.

Arizona lawmakers are weighing measures that would purge its early voting list of people who don’t use their early ballots for two consecutive election cycles, and would require people who vote by early ballot to include proof of identification beyond the current signature system.

In Michigan, Republican lawmakers this week introduced a 39-bill package that would ban mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications, prohibit pre-paid postage for absentee ballots, and limit the hours people can use ballot drop boxes.

And in Iowa, a Latino civil rights organization has filed a lawsuit over a new law signed this month that shortens the absentee voting period and adds new penalties for election officer misconduct.

Biden said he would “do everything in my power” to prevent those changes from going into effect.

He pledged to help the U.S. Senate pass a sweeping elections bill drafted by Democrats, which would expand voting rights and block some of the actions underway in GOP state legislatures. That bill, designed by U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.), passed the House in early March, but faces an uphill battle in the evenly divided Senate, where it would need some Republican support to win approval.

Asked if there’s anything he can do beyond passing legislation like H.R. 1 to block state-level proposals that would limit voting access, Biden replied: “The answer is yes but I’m not going to lay out a strategy in front of you and the whole world now.”

Republicans in the Maryland legislature repeatedly have argued the state needs more safeguards on mail-in ballots, citing some late and incorrect ballot deliveries in the largely mail-in 2020 primary election.

Gallion, Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) and Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) proposed a variety of election reforms — including requiring voters to show some form of identification before casting a ballot, but that measure hasn’t advanced.

Ready, who sponsored the voter ID effort, described his proposal as a “common-sense measure” that would increase voter confidence in the ballot. Under Ready’s proposal, voters could use a government-issued photo ID, utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, “any other recent government document that shows the voter’s name and address,” a voter notification card or a sample ballot to prove their identity.

While Ready argued the bill would build voter confidence, voting rights advocates say voter ID laws are a form of suppression. And the American Civil Liberties Union argued that such proposals are discriminatory because minority voters disproportionately lack ID. According to the ACLU, “up to 25% of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of whites.”

Proposed voter identification laws have failed in Maryland’s General Assembly in recent years. Other Senate Republican efforts at election reform include requiring election officials verify signatures on mail-in ballots and attempts to reduce the number of ballots a single person can collect and turn in.

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House Election Bills Start Moving in Md. Senate, as Biden Blasts Laws Limiting Voting Access