Laslo Boyd: A bit of Alabama, fleetingly, in Montgomery County

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Of all the ways you might distinguish between America’s two major political parties, one of the most dramatic is their differing attitudes on the question of eligibility to vote.  Although it is an article of faith, explicit in our laws, that voting is the most basic of all rights in a democracy, Republicans and Democrats fundamentally disagree how easy or difficult it should be to exercise that right.

The difference between the parties is not a close call.  All the states that have instituted voter ID laws in this country are ones with Republican governors and Republican majorities in their legislatures.   In a large number of instances, courts have nullified those laws as unconstitutional obstacles to basic rights, but Republicans keep looking for new ways to get around those decisions.

As many have noted, voter ID laws are a solution searching for a problem.  The number of documented cases of in-person voter fraud is so small as to give practical meaning to the term “infinitesimal.”  If you were serious about looking for a voting problem to solve, you would be instituting means to make it easier to vote and to increase voter turnout in elections.  For example, California just enacted legislation that ties the renewal of a driver’s license more directly to voter registration.

The old cliché about states being the laboratories of democracy does have a perverse side.  Some states have been incredibly creative about constructing barriers to voting over the years.  Where once there were literacy tests and racial intimidation, today states make it difficult for people who don’t have cars, who were born in an era where not everyone received a birth certificate, or who don’t have flexibility in their work schedules.  Most of those people are minorities or poor, who also happen to vote more frequently for Democratic candidates.

(The survey research finding that nearly 50% of Republicans continue to believe that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States could be an argument for reinstituting some form of literacy test.  If you are that willfully ignorant or insist on filtering information through blind prejudice, maybe you’re the one who should be disqualified from voting.)

The issue of voter suppression is one that Marylanders have, until recently, been able to view as someone else’s problem.  No voter ID laws here.  A few efforts to mislead voters about the date of the election or the location of a polling place, but it was small scale compared to the systematic efforts carried out with the force of law in other states. 

Nothing like the new effort in Alabama to close down DMV offices in most of the state, including where the highest concentrations of minorities live.  Those offices, in case you were wondering, are where someone would get an official state-issued photo ID, which you would need if you want to vote in Alabama.

That gets us to an interesting provision of Maryland law.  Whichever party controls the office of Governor automatically gets majorities in each of the local boards of elections as well as on the State Board.  With the altered political reality of having a Republican governor, the newly appointed members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections decided to change the early voting sites in the county.  They dropped two locations close to both large minority populations and high transit use.  Their switch to a location in Potomac was justified in the name of “geographical diversity”.

Bear with me because this is one of those issues in which the rules matter.  By a 3-2 party line vote, the new Republican majority backed off one of the changes in the face of vocal public opposition but went ahead with the second relocation.  However, the decision still had to be ratified by the State Board, which under the rules requires a super majority of four of the five members.  

As only three members voted in the affirmative, the issue was returned to the local board.  Earlier this week, in a clear demonstration that Montgomery County really isn’t Alabama, a compromise was worked out.  In exchange for restoring the two contested early voting sites, Democrats agreed to push for legislation in the next session of the Maryland General Assembly to allow the local board to add the “geographically diverse” early voting locations in the county.

Besides giving us a glimpse into the challenges to preserving voting rights in the rest of the country, what does this episode show us?

First, as noted above, rules matter.  The effort to change early voting locations failed in large part because the Republican proponents didn’t have enough votes.  A corollary of that principle is that elections have consequences.  The dismal showing by Anthony Brown in the 2014 Gubernatorial Election impacted more than just who the next governor would be.  Just as the next president will undoubtedly have the opportunity to nominate several Supreme Court justices, elections are always about more than a single office holder.

Second, political activism can make a difference.  In Montgomery County, a coalition of state and local office holders working with community organizations made the issue a highly visible one and brought real political pressure on the election board.  The result here is a good argument against political cynicism and apathy.

Finally, a lesson that often gets forgotten is that political battles rarely have a definitive end.  There’s no assurance that this issue won’t come back in some other guise in the future.   Given the national emphasis by Republicans on creating obstacles to voter participation, political activists in Montgomery County and the rest of Maryland will need to stay alert.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.