Montgomery County Task Force Makes Waves for Local Voting Rights

by , , , Ben Petit // Published April 9, 2014
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County Council President Nancy Navarro


Last September, Montgomery County, Maryland took proactive steps toward improving its elections by unanimously passing a right to vote resolution and establishing a citizen’s task force on voting issues. The decision was welcomed by national and community leaders such as Senator Ben Cardin, Congressman Chris Van Hollen, and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray at an event following the Council vote.

Right to vote resolutions are community organizing tools offered by FairVote’s Promote Our Vote project. Their purpose is to spur community dialogue and concrete changes in policy to ensure fair and equitable voting rights. One reform resulting from the Montgomery County resolution was the establishment of a citizen’s task force charged with proposing plans for a new voter registration program, promoting early voting and same-day registration, and recommending changes in state and local ballot practices.

Fixing our electoral system is key to solving the greater challenges facing the country, according to Montgomery County task force member Mary Rooker. “I’m convinced that without structural changes, we’re not going to see much in the way of change,” Rooker explained.

With the release of its interim report on February 24th, the task force has set ambitious goals for the county’s elections, including adopting automatic voter registration, preventing partisan redistricting, improving civic outreach, bolstering voter turnout, and expanding civic education programs. The group has also announced plans to explore expanded suffrage for youths and people with felony convictions, ways to reduce wait times at the polls, and more inclusive ballot access laws.

To accomplish its goals, the 14 member task force is divided into three subcommittees that focus on voting rights, registration, and access. In keeping with the council’s provision that no party can comprise more than two thirds of the task force, members include Democrats, Republicans, an Independent, and one member of the Green Party.

Stephen Mortellaro, who serves with Rooker on the Voting Rights Subcommittee, believes that communities have a key role to play in promoting and protecting the right to vote. “If we have groups of people who are disenfranchised… then we’re not really living up to the expectations of a democratic government,” said Mortellaro.

At a time when many jurisdictions around the country are making it more difficult to vote, the Montgomery County task force is striving for improved turnout, protected access, and expanded suffrage. “The Montgomery County task force is an example of how local government can counteract negative trends in practice and law, and spark a new suffrage movement -- and the county’s not alone,” Said Rob Richie, FairVote Executive Director.

Local governments, campuses, and organizations across the country are working to advance pro-suffrage measures. Takoma Park, MD, and Prince George's County, MD, passed right to vote resolutions in 2013. In 2014, two Florida universities adopted these resolutions and the Florida State Legislature is considering a statewide resolution. Several resolutions and task forces are in the pipeline in states like Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Virginia, and North Carolina, as well as in Washington, DC.

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