Why the MVA's voter registration screw-up matters

You don’t need to assume the Hogan administration’s failure to transmit 80,000 voter registration changes to the Board of Elections is some kind of vote suppression scheme to be outraged by it. The problem isn’t just that a huge number of voters will be inconvenienced or that we won’t know for sure who won some races until next month. It’s not even that this massive error — or the last-minute announcement of it — will diminish further the already tenuous trust in our voting process. It’s that inevitably, some people who did all the right things to maintain their eligibility to vote won’t have their voices heard in this election. Given the number of close races from the Democratic gubernatorial primary to county executive, council and State House contests, that could very well alter the outcome in unpredictable ways.

For the record, we see no evidence thus far that this problem is anything more than a mistake. If Gov. Larry Hogan wanted to suppress votes, Republicans in other states have demonstrated much more effective ways to do it, from voter ID laws to aggressive purges of the voter rolls. Furthermore, he would have nothing obvious to gain from such an effort before a primary election in which he is unopposed.

No, announcing three days before an election that 18,000 records of voter address changes or party switches logged through the Motor Vehicle Administration had never been sent to the Board of Elections, and then correcting the record on the eve of the election to say the number was actually more like 80,000, looks like simple incompetence. It’s nice that Governor Hogan has asked the Department of Transportation’s auditor to investigate, but at this point we suspect the public is going to want an outside review. The hearings promised by legislative Democrats are certainly a welcome step, but the non-partisan Department of Legislative Audits needs to have the final word about what happened here. We need results before November’s election, and we need to see Governor Hogan hold those responsible to account.

The option for affected voters to cast provisional ballots is an imperfect failsafe. Maryland was one of a few states that offered a version of provisional ballots before the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (which was a response to the problems in the 2000 presidential election), and its policies are better than many. For example, those who cast a provisional ballot at the wrong precinct still have their votes counted for state-wide offices and for whichever others they should have been allowed to vote in. Some states throw out wrong-precinct ballots altogether. Consequently, Maryland’s typical rate of provisional ballot acceptance is upward of 90 percent.

But some percentage of people will simply walk away when instructed that they have to vote provisionally, and what limited data is available on the phenomenon suggests those frustrated (or distrustful or intimidated) voters are more likely to be minorities or young people. A 2014 report from the Center for American Progress already found a correlation between the minority population and the rate of provisional ballots cast in Maryland counties (it is one of 16 states in which that’s true), and this Hogan administration error is likely to compound that. Because this is a primary, that won’t have a partisan effect, but it could change the composition of the electorate in ways that help or hurt candidates up and down the ballot.

At the very least, this mistake is going to lead to some serious undervotes in local races. Since the Board of Elections had incomplete or inaccurate information about people who moved, larger than usual numbers of people are likely to be unaware of their correct precinct and polling place, and under Maryland provisional ballot rules and procedures that means many won’t have their votes for local or state legislative races counted.

The chairs of the two election oversight committees in Annapolis, Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Anne R. Kaiser, have already called on MVA Administrator Christine Nizer to resign over the mistake. We’ll hold off on that until we learn more about how this happened, but Governor Hogan absolutely needs to hold someone responsible for the failure. His reputation as a supporter of democratic elections (not to mention as a competent administrator) depends on it.

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