We should make every effort to increase voter participation by making voter registration and the act of voting simple and accessible to all eligible voters. Unfortunately, many eligible Maryland voters, especially young Marylanders, are not voting.
Thanks to the important work of this committee, Maryland has made great strides to modernize our voter registration systems through same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration. The Student Voter Empowerment Act adds another important tool to help ensure participation.
Voting serves as a building block to more active involvement in civic life. In Maryland PIRG’s 45-year history of working with young people and running non-partisan voter registration drives, we have found that most young people want to and intend to participate in voting, but as new voters, they often struggle to navigate the voter registration system or forget they need to update their registration every time they move.
In the 2016 presidential election, turnout in Maryland as a percentage of the voting population was at its lowest in 24 years. In 2018, turnout of voters under 29 was at 36% compared to 53.4% of all eligible voters turned out. While this was an increase of 10% in youth voter participation since the last midterm election, it is not good enough. Numerous studies have shown that voting is habit forming, and youth who vote are more likely to become life-long voters.
Likewise, young people who are registered to vote turn out in high numbers, very close to the rate of older voters. The voter registration gap in young people is a driving force in low youth voter participation. In 2018, only 54% of Marylanders aged 18-24 were registered to vote, compared to 66% of all Marylanders over the age of 18. In order to increase civic participation we need to help young people get registered to vote and ensure they have the tools and information they need to turn out on Election Day.
During the 2018 midterm elections, for example, Maryland PIRG students helped register and turn out more than 2,800 University of Maryland students to vote. Election after election in states across the country we have found that if we ask students to vote and help them navigate the system, they will.
We should reduce the barriers faced by young people trying to register to vote and go to the polls. The Student Voter Empowerment Act ensures that:
- Universities with over 4,200 undergraduate students will have a polling location on campus;
- Universities will post the link to the online voter registration form on the website students use to register for classes to keep it visible;
- Public universities will have a student voter coordinator, who will take point on forming a plan to support student voter registration and ensure students have the resources they need.
Maryland should take this opportunity to step up and be a national leader on democracy issues. We can encourage first time and young voters, increase civic participation, and build a more functional democracy.
We respectfully request a favorable report.