Nearly 19,000 Maryland voters will have to file provisional ballots if they want to participate in Tuesday’s primary, after the state Motor Vehicle Administration failed to transmit updated voter information to the State Board of Elections, officials said Sunday.
The MVA and Board of Elections attributed the error to a programming glitch, and said it affects about 18,700 individuals who updated their addresses through the MVA’s website or self-service kiosks between April 22, 2017, and June 5, 2018. Officials said a “computer programming error” prevented the transmission of updated addresses and party affiliations to the Board of Elections in cases where voters changed their address but did not buy a driver’s license, vehicle registration or title, or identification card.
“We are deeply sorry about what happened and we’re dedicated to fixing it and making sure it doesn’t occur going forward,” MVA Administrator Christine Nizer said Sunday. “We’re going to put additional measures in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
State officials said they plan to send notification emails to the 17,600 impacted voters who have emails on file with the MVA, and efforts are underway to identify all of the impacted voters and notify local elections officials. The office of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) assured residents that every vote would be counted.
“The Hogan administration takes the right to vote extremely seriously and no Maryland voter will be denied the franchise,” Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.
But the problem, announced three days before primary elections, spawned a state Senate committee hearing and drew sharp criticism from Democrats and good governance advocates, who said it was an inexcusable mistake so close to the vote, and could shape the outcome of some races.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, pinned the issue on the Hogan administration and said her panel will hold a hearing in July to probe the matter. And state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), a candidate for the Democratic nomination to challenge Hogan, said the issue was brought on “through either mismanagement or purposeful action” on the part of Hogan officials.
“This is not a simple administrative oversight or clerical error,” Conway said in a statement. “It is an action by the Hogan administration which will confuse voters, suppress turnout, and disenfranchise thousands of Marylanders. Even worse, it may impact the outcome of close races up and down the ballot.” The hearing, she said, will aim to “hold the Governor’s team accountable for this mess, and to ensure it will not occur again on the eve of the general election.”
Hogan’s office balked at the suggestion that the computer glitch was in any way deliberate or an effort to disenfranchise voters — while noting that the State Board of Elections is independent from the executive branch.
“This conspiracy theory is so absurd and hateful that it should not be dignified by a response,” Chasse said. “Suffice it to say we welcome an inquiry as it will demonstrate this as nothing more than an unfortunate clerical error.”
Critics pointed to early efforts on the part of a Hogan appointee to shift two early voter sites to less populous areas of Montgomery County — which led to accusations of voter suppression. Hogan also vetoed an expansion of voting rights to felons — a decision that was overridden by the state legislature.
State officials said voter rolls at local precincts could not be updated in time for Tuesday’s primary because there is no digital mechanism for doing so. Affected voters were advised to use the state’s polling place locator website to determine where to vote, and file a provisional ballot at that location on Tuesday.
In April 2017, the MVA began allowing residents to streamline their visits by applying for driver’s licenses and ID cards online, and completing the process in person.
But some customers using the website or in-person kiosks were simply updating their addresses, a process that initiates questions on whether they want to notify the State Board of Elections of the modification or change their party affiliation. Among the 18,700 individuals who changed their addresses, about 7,300 also changed their party affiliation — and neither modification was recorded. Nizer said the MVA discovered the larger issue after learning about a case affecting one individual who had changed their address.
“When programming changes were made to provide the ability to start your application for a driver’s license or ID card from home in April 2017, the computer language was modified to not send voter registration information to the State Board of Elections if the customer didn’t buy a product,” MVA said in a written question-and-answer document. “Unfortunately, [Maryland Department of Transportation] MVA computer programmers did not account for customers being impacted if they visited the e-store and kiosk just to change their address with the MDOT MVA without purchasing a driver’s license, ID card, vehicle registration, title or other item.”
Damon Effingham, acting director of the Maryland chapter of Common Cause, said the state’s failure to properly update the information was a serious breach of duty to Maryland voters, especially as they already face other sources of confusion at the polls.
“Regardless of whose fault it is, it should be a huge priority for every government agency that has the information to properly register Marylanders who want to be registered,” he said. “I really hope the MVA works very hard to ensure something like this never happens again.”
The Maryland Democratic Party issued a statement assuring voters that every vote would be counted and that the party’s attorneys will be staffing a voter protection hotline on Election Day to help anyone experiencing problems.