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Nearly 25 percent of MVA voter registrations fail

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Nearly one out of four Marylanders who have tried to register to vote at a Motor Vehicle Administration office in the past four years has not been added to the voter rolls, according to state records obtained by The Sun.

Though some of these tens of thousands of would-be voters have undoubtedly found alternative methods to register, officials at the State Board of Elections say they field calls every year from residents who say they turned up at the polls on Election Day only to discover their names did not appear on the rolls.

Elections officials, good-government advocates and lawmakers say the failures illustrate the challenges of implementing the federal Motor Voter Act.

The 1993 law, which requires states to offer voter registration to citizens when they apply for driver's licenses, was intended to expand the voter rolls and increase participation in elections. And there has been progress: The MVA has helped sign up 451,386 new voters since January 2007.

But critics say it has burdened motor vehicle departments with an unfamiliar responsibility.

"Their primary focus is not elections," said Del. Jon S. Cardin. "We have required them to take this on."

Nonetheless, the Baltimore County Democrat calls the failure rate "a grave concern." He is one of several lawmakers pushing for improvements.

"We cannot be satisfied with one-fourth of the people who want to vote not being signed up," he said.

State Board of Elections records requested by The Sun show that 144,442 would-be voters started the registration process at an MVA office during the past four years, but for some reason, their names did not get on the voter rolls.

The number would not have made a difference in the lopsided victory of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley last fall over former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but it is significantly larger than the margin that separated them in 2006 — though none of them would have been registered in any case in 2006.

The state elections board denied a request by The Sun for the names of people who tried to register. Officials did provide The Sun with a geographical breakdown of the failures, which showed that a disproportionate number come from Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

Baltimore, home to 10.8 percent of the state's population, had 13.2 percent of the failures. Prince George's, home to 15 percent of the population, saw 18.1 percent of the failures.

An MVA spokesman blamed the bulk of the problem on the applicants, who he said often tell clerks that they want to register to vote, but then fail to follow through by signing and returning the necessary forms.

"We offer the opportunity to start the process," spokesman Buel C. Young said. "We do what we're federally required to do under the motor voter law."

Elections officials are not satisfied.

"It is just not a good system," said Mary Wagner, the state's director of voter registration. "There are human hands involved. I'm sure that between the applicant and clerks at the MVA, papers get lost."

Though many states have struggled to implement the motor voter rules efficiently, Maryland's experience stands out.

"That problem is of a scale that is off the charts," said Adam Skaggs, an attorney who focuses on election administration for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "Twenty-five percent trying to register and having their registration lost, or not processed? That is absolutely unacceptable."

The problems are not limited to voter registration, according to elections records.

In the past four years, 120,000 voters who provided change-of-address information using the paper-based system at the MVA did not have that data updated on the voter rolls.

Under state elections rules, voters who show up at a polling place and find they are not listed on the rolls may cast provisional ballots for county, statewide or federal offices, but may not vote in local contests.

MVA officials say voters frequently live at one address but register cars to another, and intentionally keep separate records with the MVA and the Board of Elections. A business owner, for example, might keep a vehicle at a workplace.

Lawmakers have long been aware of the discrepancies. Three years ago, a Senate committee concluded that the MVA voter registration process "does not function as effectively as it should."

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee asked the MVA and the elections board to consider moving to a fully electronic system in which clerks would guide would-be voters through the registration process.

The MVA reported back that such a change was "not feasible," because it would require the agency to hire more workers and add "substantial wait times" at MVA offices.

The agency also expressed concern that its employees would be required to ask motorists about party preferences, which could leave the workers vulnerable to accusations of attempting to sway the would-be voters in one direction or another.

Additionally, changing the system would cost millions of dollars. And after years of tight state budgets, there has been little appetite in Annapolis for new spending projects.

Instead, the MVA and State Board of Elections began sending out letters, and new forms, to motorists who had expressed interest in registering.

Elections officials told lawmakers last month that they had sent out roughly 250,000 in the past four years, most of them to address discrepancies in registrations and changes of address.

"It is completely outrageous," said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who attended the briefing of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"If somebody wants to exercise their right to vote, we should be leaning over forward to help them," said Del. Samuel Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, the vice chairman of the committee.

"We should explore anything reasonable that can be done to be sure that when someone expresses the desire to vote they can do that instead of saying, 'Well, they don't follow through.'"

Under the Motor Voter Act, when a motorist applies for a driver's license at an MVA office, the clerk must ask if he or she also wants to register to vote. When the response is yes, the clerk prints out a form.

The potential voter may then select a political party (or choose to be unaffiliated) and sign the form. He or she may return the form to the clerk, deposit the completed form in a drop-off box at the MVA office to be picked up by a State Board of Elections worker or take it home and mail it to the elections board directly.

It's a manual process that state elections officers across the country have found difficult.

"There are too many points of failure built into most systems," said Elaine Manlove, Delaware's state election commissioner. "I think it is set up to fail."

Manlove recalled working at a polling place in New Castle, Del., in the 2000 election. Fifty frustrated citizens told her they'd registered with the state's motor vehicle department, but their names were not on the voter rolls. She was able to add their names — but the process involved faxing a judge.

"It bothered me," Manlove said. "If 50 stayed, what if 500 went home? I had no way of knowing."

She spent the next nine years lobbying to install a paperless system.

For an investment of $600,000, Delaware now is widely viewed as having the premier motor voter system in the country.

The process is entirely electronic: Motorists fill out and sign registration forms with a stylus and touch pad. The information goes directly to the state elections board.

There's no paper. And, officials say, very little room for error.

"We are not missing anything anymore," said Manlove. "It has been a real success."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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