State Director, Maryland PIRG
State Director, Maryland PIRG
With changes to voting and campaign finance rules, Maryland sets the pace for nation
BALTIMORE – Several voting and campaign finance reform bills that the Maryland General Assembly passed this session became law in Maryland after Gov. Larry Hogan chose not to sign them. The new laws increase access to early voting, improve on the state’s vote-by-mail system, and reduce the role of large and corporate donors in races for governor. While none of the bills got Gov. Hogan’s endorsement, many of the bills earned bipartisan support in the state legislature.
“We are disappointed that Gov. Hogan did not sign these common sense reforms, especially the update to the Fair Elections Act, which he used to win office,” Said Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr, “With these new laws Maryland has firmly positioned itself as a leader on democracy reforms.”
The events of 2020 made a clear case for why American democracy desperately needs reform. But while an important federal election reform bill called the “For The People Act” has stalled in the U.S. Senate, a handful of states, notably Maryland, are pushing forward with building a better democracy.
The Maryland bills passed recently include:
- Campaign finance reform: The Maryland Fair Elections Act, sponsored by Sen. Paul Pinsky and Del. Jessica Feldmark, updates and funds the public campaign financing program for the gubernatorial race. The revised program allows participating candidates to only accept donations under $250 and only from individuals. A public fund will match small donations to candidates. As a result, gubernatorial candidates can spend time speaking with their constituents instead of chasing big checks from wealthy donors, PACs and corporations. Gov. Hogan used the current program during his successful race for governor in 2014. This bill passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support.
- Improvements to voting by mail: Voters can now choose to join a permanent mail-in voting list and have ballots sent automatically to them for all elections. These bills, sponsored by Sen. Ben Kramer and Del. Jheanelle Wilkins also make ballot drop boxes a permanent fixture in Maryland elections.
- Increasing early voting options: Legislation sponsored by Del. Eric Luedtke increases the number of early voting sites required in every county in Maryland. It also requires the Board of Elections to take into account the accessibility of these centers to historically disenfranchised communities, accessibility via public transportation and equitable distribution of early voting centers throughout each county. Legislation sponsored by Del. Alonzo Washington and Sen. Mary Washington extended the operating hours of early voting centers. Early voting centers have traditionally been open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Now, they will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m, the same hours as on Election Day.
- The Student and Military Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Del. Luedtke and Sen. Sarah Elfreth, aims to increase voter participation for student and military voters. Both students and military members participate in elections at rates lower than the general population.The full participation of these groups is essential to create a representative, vibrant democracy.
States have often been described as laboratories of democracy and, in recent years, Maryland has been one of the most productive laboratories. In fact, many of the reforms in the stalled federal For the People Act are already in use in Maryland. Over the last decade, Maryland has passed automatic voter registration, has expanded access to mail-in balloting and, after the state legislature passed enabling legislation in 2013, five Maryland cities and counties established successful public campaign financing programs to empower small donors.
Groups including Maryland PIRG, Common Cause Maryland, the League of Women Voters of Maryland, the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights Maryland, and the Maryland ACLU have worked with legislators and activists to advocate for these reforms.
So, while partisan gridlock stymies reform just across the state line in Washington, DC, Maryland is showing that there is a path forward for building a democracy that works for everyone.
“Our democracy works best when we all participate and everyone’s voice is heard, in Maryland, the 49 other states and DC,” said Scarr. “Instituting these electoral reforms is a powerful way to ensure we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Maryland PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) is a state based, non-partisan, small donor funded public interest advocacy organization with grassroots members across the state and a student funded, student directed chapter at the University of Maryland College Park. For forty five years we’ve stood up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.