Local election boards get spreadsheet from MVA to help their review, tally of provisional votes

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration has provided the state elections board with a spreadsheet listing all the voters affected by a data transfer glitch — information that will be a vital part of efforts to make sure the votes of thousands of affected people are counted.

On the eve of Tuesday’s election, the MVA discovered that it had failed to send the election board voter registration information for 80,000 people. It’s not yet clear how many of them turned out to vote Tuesday and were forced to use a provisional ballot because their names weren’t on the voter rolls.

But the main focus now is ensuring their votes get tallied accurately, said Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy elections administrator.

“We want to make sure that the counties have all the information … on the affected voters so they can make the right canvassing decision,” Charlson said.

The MVA says changes to the voters’ addresses or party affiliation weren’t transferred from its systems to the state Board of Elections because of a computer programming error. On Tuesday, the Department of Transportation began an audit to examine what went wrong and who was affected, according to a department spokeswoman, Erin Henson.

Most of the affected voters were notified by email that they would have to cast a provisional ballot -- an option for registered voters who show up at the wrong polling place or whose address or party affiliation doesn’t match the official database.

Local elections boards have to analyze all provisional ballots to determine whether they should be counted. That review will now include checking the spreadsheet to see if the voter was one of those affected by the problem at the MVA, to ensure officials are using the most up-to-date voter information. Ballots that pass the screening will be counted July 5.

“It’s adding a step or two when the local election officials are reviewing each application,” Charlson said. “They’re still going to be ready to canvass provisional ballots next Thursday.”

On Wednesday, the Motor Vehicle Administration provided more background on how the issue originated. In April 2017, the agency began allowing consumers to begin driver’s license or ID applications online before completing the process in person — and that’s when the programming problem was introduced.

“The programming error resulted in voter registration updates not being sent to the State Board of Elections unless a customer completed the transaction by paying for a driver’s license, ID card, registration or title,” MVA spokeswoman Porlan Cunningham said in an email. “Because there is no fee to change your address on file with MDOT MVA, any voter registration updates made with only the MDOT MVA address change were not registered as completed transactions by the system and therefore, as programmed, these voter registration updates were not sent to the State Board of Elections every evening.”

Some voters reported getting the email from the state election board saying they had been affected, but were then able to vote in the normal way.

In those instances, Cunningham said, “An email was generated for anyone that attempted to update their voter registration information in this manner. This updated information could be as small as an individual changing the apartment number from 2 to 2D or making slight modifications to the address such as changing St. to Street.”

Others told at the polls to cast a provisional ballot may not have been affected by the MVA glitch; they may have tried to vote in a primary for a party they’re not registered with or to vote at the wrong location.

Charlson said there were no warning signs that data wasn’t being transferred from the MVA. The data is shared daily and the number of records to be updated each day varies from fewer than 100 to about 2,600.

“We wouldn't know we were missing this subset of data,” Charlson said.

Some voters expressed frustration at the experience of voting provisionally.

Sarah Benas, a 27-year-old Medfield woman who works in accounting, went to the elementary school in her neighborhood about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to vote using a provisional ballot. She had recently moved from nearby Hampden and knew she was affected by the MVA trouble.

She said she was told voting using a provisional ballot involved only recording her personal information — not making any actual candidate selections. She protested the lack of actually voting, and said she talked to two workers, who eventually called an election official. Finally, the workers got clarification that she did, indeed, need to record her vote for specific candidates.

“When I asked for an actual ballot with a list of candidates, they kept trying to tell me that a provisional ballot was different, that all I had to do was fill out the personal info form and that for provisional votes, you vote for the whole party,” said Benas. “I told them that didn’t make any sense.”

“I don’t know how much they were trained on provisional ballots,” she said. “I am definitely concerned other people had a similar experience.”

Susan Keller, a 59-year-old homemaker, moved from one home to another in Carroll County in May and changed her voter registration information online. When she went on the web to check her polling location, she discovered her registration information had not been updated. She learned from the website to go to the new polling location and ask for a provisional ballot.

There, Keller said, she encountered election judges who seemed to be “really befuddled.”

“One suggested I go back to my old polling location,” Keller, a Republican, said. She is suspicious about the circumstances that led to the situation.

“As a Republican in a blue state, I vote anyway even though it's usually an exercise in futility,” Keller said. “I do wonder whether this situation was really just ‘an error’ or an attempt to quash voter rights.”

David Zinner said voters were not the only ones disheartened.

He has been a chief election judge in Howard County for a dozen years. He said he and other election workers at his polling place in Columbia were not given any information about the likely onslaught of provisional voters, or how to handle them. Judges are trained to process provisional ballots, he said, but the extreme situation demanded communication from state officials.

“You don’t want to blindside your judges,” Zinner said. “There was a serious gap in communication.”

Zinner said about 775 voters cast ballots at Long Reach High School Tuesday, including more than 20 provisional ballots.

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