Maryland voter registration snafu affects 80,000, four times as many as initially announced

As many as 80,000 voters will have to cast provisional ballots in Tuesday’s primary election because of a computer glitch — four times as many as state officials initially announced.

On the eve of the election, Democratic legislative leaders called for the immediate resignation of Motor Vehicle Administrator Christine Nizer, who oversees the agency that failed to forward voter information to the Maryland Board of Elections.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordered an audit of what went wrong.

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The MVA discovered the problem was more widespread after it first announced late Saturday that nearly 19,000 were affected, according to a document obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The computer glitch affected some voters across the state who tried to change their registration address or party affiliation through the MVA since April 2017.

When those voters show up at the polls Tuesday, the correct information will not be in the poll books and they will have to vote on a provisional ballot. Those ballots will be counted later, on July 5.

“No one gets turned away,” said Nikki Charlson, deputy state elections administrator.

Voters head to the polls starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday to cast ballots in Democratic and Republican primary races. They include the Democratic race for governor as well as primaries for Baltimore County executive, Baltimore City state’s attorney, General Assembly districts, Congress, school boards and other contests across the state.

Election officials said they likely will not be able to say how many provisional ballots have been cast until Friday. The delay could make it difficult to know the outcome of close races on election night.

This year’s contests take place at a time when suspicions are running high about how American elections are conducted — from concerns about Russian hacking to charges of voter suppression to alarms being raised about voter fraud.

The news about the software glitch plays into those fears.

Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a former state lawmaker and political observer who hosts the "C4" radio show on WBAL, called the revelation and its timing on the eve of an election “incredible.”

“It does ruin people’s confidence in the voting process,” he said, adding that the winner of a potentially close governor’s primary race and state legislative races might not be known for days.

The MVA’s Nizer said the agency underestimated the number of affected voters because officials were trying to tell people quickly about the problem.

“In our sense of urgency to inform the public given the close proximity of the primary election, the numbers that were initially reported did not accurately reflect the total scope of the people impacted,” Nizer said in a statement.

Two Democratic General Assembly leaders who oversee election issues called for Nizer to step down and accused the Hogan administration of attempting to “sweep this under the rug.”

Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Anne R. Kaiser said in a joint statement that Nizer should step down immediately.

“Their initial failure was bad, and their explanations are worse,” the lawmakers said.

On Sunday, after Conway called for a hearing into the computer glitch and its late discovery, Hogan’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, called the problem a “clerical error” and dismissed Conway’s concerns as a “conspiracy theory.”

Late Monday, Chasse issued a statement saying the Hogan administration was “obviously incredibly disappointed that this happened.

“What matters most is that every eligible voter will be able to vote, and every vote will be counted,” she said. “The governor has directed the auditor for the Maryland Department of Transportation to conduct a comprehensive review of the situation, and ordered MVA leadership to make themselves available for any legislative hearings.”

Chasse declined to comment on calls for Nizer’s resignation. Nizer was appointed in 2015 to oversee the $242 million agency by Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who issued a public apology late Monday.

"The public relies on us to follow through on our customer service commitments, and MDOT MVA clearly fell short in this case," Rahn said.

The computer glitch began in April 2017, when new software was installed on the MVA’s website and walk-up kiosks. Voters who paid to renew a driver’s license or made other purchases did have their updated information sent to the Board of Elections. But information was not relayed to the Board of Elections for voters who logged on only to change their voter information, according to the MVA.

Government watchdog organizations warned there could be confusion at the polls. They said such late-breaking problems could erode voter trust — and have a chilling effect on voters showing up to the polls.

“A lot of people don’t believe that their provisional ballots are counted, even though they are,” said Damon Effingham, acting executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland. “That is frustrating because it is one of many parts of the political process, whether right or wrong, that disenfranchises people in the sense that it disillusions them.”

Effingham questioned whether election judges, though trained, could handle a four-fold increase in the need to cast provisional ballots.

Voters need to know “that the Maryland state government cares about the right of Marylanders to vote, the security of their information and that processes are handled properly,” he said.

Charlson, the deputy elections administrator, said local officials have enough provisional ballots to handle the increased demand, calling it “a pretty minimal impact at most precincts.”

She said she was confident the voting system can handle the late-breaking problem.

“We’re used to this process. It’s been in place. It works,” she said. “The system is prepared for this and is able to absorb it.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.


Election Day

Polls across Maryland will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.


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