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Did Voter Registration Errors Keep People From Voting?

Rachel Baye


State lawmakers and election officials said Thursday that problems with nearly 72,000 voter registrations likely kept people from voting during last month’s primary. But during a rare mid-summer legislative hearing, they also said it’s impossible to know how many people chose not to cast ballots as a result of the errors.

The day before Maryland’s primary election, the Motor Vehicle Administration revealed that tens of thousands of voters’ addresses and party affiliations weren’t properly sent to the State Board of Elections, and that those voters would have to vote with provisional ballots at the polls.

On Thursday, MVA Administrator Christine Nizer told two legislative committees that the snafu was the result of a coding error made by a contractor. She apologized for the mistake.

“I’m personally sorry,” she said. “I personally feel an obligation related to voter registration, and clearly we failed in this case.”

Nearly 72,000 people were both affected and eligible to vote in the primary, she said. Of those, about 3,500 cast provisional ballots, and about 5,000 were able to vote through the normal process.

But Democratic members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs and House Ways and Means committees wanted to know how many were turned away at the polls or deterred from showing up at all.

Montgomery County Del. Eric Luedtke pointed out that turnout was much lower among those affected by the MVA error — about 12 percent, compared with 23 percent of all primary voters.

And Del. Alonzo Washington, from Prince George’s County, said he heard from people who were turned away.

“There was many people turned away because of this issue, and I know that for certain because I talked to people when they came out of the polls who said they were turned away … when they changed their address earlier in the year,” he said. “So this is happening — it did happen.”

State Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone said she shares lawmakers’ concerns.

Prince George’s County Sen. Paul Pinsky asked her whether she knows of studies that could offer insight into how many people may have been deterred. Lamone said she didn’t have studies or numbers, but she said having to vote provisionally could definitely have kept people away.

“I have seen some discussion that people believe that it’s less than a vote — it’s not a real ballot,” she said.

The committees’ Republican members didn’t share their Democratic colleagues’ concerns.

“From everything I’ve heard, I don’t believe there was any trampling of constitutional rights based on a programming error,” said Anne Arundel County Sen. Bryan Simonaire.

He added that lower turnout numbers could also have been caused by “some lack of excitement on the Democratic side, as far as their candidates.”

The committees also heard testimony from Bella Ryb, an intern in Montgomery County Sen. Cheryl Kagan’s office who worked as an election judge in Howard County.

She said that while checking people in at the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City during early voting — before the MVA’s error was made public — she saw firsthand the effect of the glitch.

Though people whose addresses were wrong were able to take advantage of same-day registration during early voting, people who had tried to change their party affiliations through the MVA were told they would have to cast provisional ballots, she recalled.

“They were almost discouraged from voting provisional — told that if they didn’t find clear evidence of them having made some effort to change it, then their vote wouldn’t count at all, so they should be careful if they were going to go that route,” she said. “And many of these people, when they were told, ‘Oh, your vote might not count if you vote provisional,’ said, ‘Oh, ok. I won’t vote.’”

Nizer, the MVA administrator, said her agency plans to conduct weekly audits of voter registration systems at least through the general election to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again.

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