A University of Maryland SGA-backed state bill that would allow citizens to vote in municipal elections by absentee ballot without providing a reason is close to being signed into law, the group's leaders said.
The bill, introduced to the House and Senate separately in February, would allow students to vote in local elections without having to visit polling places in person on a school day. In College Park, having a full schedule of classes is not a sufficient reason to vote absentee.
The city grants absentee ballots if voters may be absent from the city on Election Day, are unable to get to polling locations due to accident, illness or physical disability, are confined to an institution, have experienced death or serious illness in their immediate families or are full-time students at higher education institutions outside of College Park, with academic requirements preventing them from going to the polls.
The identical bills have passed without amendments in both chambers. Mihir Khetarpal, the Student Government Association's director of governmental affairs, said the only steps left for the legislation are for one of the bills to be approved in the opposite chamber, and then for Gov. Larry Hogan to either sign the bill or ignore it.
"I don't think that's a large hurdle," said Khetarpal, a senior economics and government and politics major. "We've cleared some of the biggest hurdles that we would have for the bill."
SGA President AJ Pruitt, a senior economics and government and politics major, said the approval of one of the bills in an opposite chamber is mostly procedural, and they tend to get passed.
"To have to go through this painstaking process of passing legislation is great for the SGA," Pruitt said. "It shows what we can do, it shows that we can help people … but you have to ask yourself, 'Why was this not done sooner?'"
Pruitt said that they have been bringing the issue before the College Park City Council since his sophomore year, and the SGA's suggestions had been met with the council citing concerns of being too far or too close to elections.
Mayor Patrick Wojahn said the council's reservations about the measure in the past were largely due to financial concerns.
"We have heard some feedback from our city staff and the city board of election supervisors, and they were concerned about the costs that it would have on the city. I think we can explore ways to minimize that," he said.
Jack Robson, College Park's chief of the Board of Elections Supervisors, estimated it could cost the city between $5,000 and $10,000 to make the change. However, Robson said the board was unsure about the final costs of allowing everyone to request no-excuse absentee ballots.
"They are exceedingly time-consuming to process, they're expensive to mail and we anticipate that we'll have to hire a part-time clerk to do that, to handle the influx," he said.
Robson said the Board of Election Supervisors talked about adding a polling place on campus, possibly at Stamp Student Union, for the next city election in 2019, pending cooperation from this university.
"It may be that the council doesn't want to give us the money for that if we're going to spend it on no-excuse absentee ballots," Robson said.
Wojahn said the council has not taken any official position on no-excuse absentee voting, and he was glad to see the bill's progress on the state level.
"We should be encouraging people to participate in the democratic process, and this is a way of doing it," Wojahn said.