Thousands of Maryland voters may have skipped primary because of MVA election error

Thousands of Marylanders may have skipped voting in the June primary after they were warned at the last minute that they would have to cast provisional ballots because of a computer glitch.

State elections officials told lawmakers at an Annapolis hearing Thursday that turnout among those voters affected by the glitch was less than half that of the electorate as a whole.

Linda Lamone, administrator at the State Board of Elections, told the joint Senate-House hearing that she is concerned that news of the glitch had a deterrent effect. Many voters may have believed their provisional votes wouldn’t matter, she said, citing previous studies showing that “people believe it’s less than a vote.”

The problem started when the Motor Vehicle Administration failed to transmit all of its voter registration data to the State Board of Elections. That meant tens of thousands of voters would have to file provisional ballots.

State officials assured the affected voters that their ballots would be counted, but only about 10 percent ended up voting, according to elections officials. By comparison, the general turnout was about 25 percent. The difference between the two amounts to nearly 10,000 votes statewide.

In a primary where several high-profile contests were very close, those provisional ballots could have been crucial in deciding some races.

A recount began Thursday in the Democratic primary for Baltimore County executive, in which former Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. finished just nine votes ahead of state Sen. Jim Brochin in the initial count.

In Howard County, a Democratic primary for county council was decided by six votes. And 80 votes separated the top two finishers in the Democratic primary for Montgomery County executive.

Lamone said that 90 percent of those who did cast provisional ballots had their votes counted in whole or in part.

A little more than 20,000 provisional ballots were cast statewide in this year’s primary. That included more than 3,500 voters on the MVA’s list of people whose address change or party switch information wasn’t properly transmitted to the elections board between April 2017 and June of this year, officials said.

About 5,200 people on that MVA list were able to cast regular ballots after all. Many had provided their updated information to the elections board in addition to the MVA.

Del. Eric G. Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he shares Lamone’s concerns that some voters skipped going to the polls.

“Unfortunately some people think that provisional ballots aren’t real ballots, so they’re not a perfect fail-safe in situations like this,” Luedtke said.

Del. Anne R. Kaiser, who co-chaired the hearing along with Sen. Joan Carter Conway, said some voters budget about 10 minutes in their busy schedules for voting. Having to spend more time filling out the forms for casting a provisional vote may deter them.

“Some people are going to get frustrated and leave. I think we all understand that,” said Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the House Ways & Means Committee.

The hearing combined moments of legislative oversight as well as political squabbling over a topic that never fails to excite lawmakers — the integrity of the election process.

Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee for governor, made an appearance at the beginning of the hearing. He said he was “proud of my fellow Democrats” for holding Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to account for the mistakes admitted by an agency in the executive branch.

“The buck stops with the governor,” Jealous said. “It’s very important to make sure every single voter registration is handled properly and nobody is forced to use a provisional ballot unnecessarily.”

Hogan’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, said the administration “has taken this issue extremely seriously from the moment we were made aware of it.” She said Hogan worked with the MVA and elections board to make sure voters had the information they needed and ordered an audit of the MVA’s information technology systems.

Lawmakers spent most of the more than two-hour hearing grilling MVA Administrator Christine Nizer about what went wrong at the agency and why estimates of the number of voters affected kept changing.

Conway, defeated in her primary but still chairman of the Senate committee that oversees elections, complained that the controversy had produced “more distorted facts than in my Senate race.” Del. Mary Washington, the Baltimore Democrat who defeated her, watched her from across the room without comment.

After wrangling over the numbers, last week the elections board and the MVA came to agreement on the total number of voter information changes that weren’t properly transmitted — 83,493.

Then on Thursday, Nizer told lawmakers a new number. She said when officials subtracted independents who had nothing to vote on in in the primary and voters who had already updated their information with elections boards, the total came to 71,981 voters affected.

Nizer told lawmakers the MVA’s early underestimate was the result of a computer query in which “and” was mixed up with “or.”

The MVA chief also said that the original error, which affected voters who changed their addresses but did not complete a transaction with the MVA, was made by a contractor in April 2017.

She said she has instituted a weekly audit process to make sure the agency is sending all voter-related information to the elections board — and that the board is receiving it. She said the agency is in the process of upgrading its multiple information technology systems, including some that date to the 1970s, to a modern one with a single platform.

Nizer said she was “deeply sorry” for what occurred and is “personally committed to ensuring it doesn’t happen again.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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