Voter registration error in Maryland affects far more than first thought

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- A computer error at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration involving voter registration may affect as many as 80,000 voters -- about four times as many as officials first estimated over the weekend and about 2 percent of all Maryland voters, state officials announced on the eve of the state's primary.

The problem relates to changes voters made in address and party affiliation on the MVA's website or kiosks, information that failed to be sent to the state elections board. Affected voters will need to use the provisional voting process on Tuesday to cast their ballots.

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"Our administration is obviously incredibly disappointed that this happened," said Amelia Chasse, Gov. Larry Hogan's spokeswoman. "What matters most is that every eligible voter will be able to vote, and every vote will be counted. 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."

The MVA said it discovered the error Friday, and the problem was only made public Saturday night. State officials first said about 18,760 people were affected. On Sunday, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway said the Senate committee she chairs would hold a hearing. After Monday's announcement, Conway and Del. Anne Kaiser, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, called for MVA Administrator Christine Nizer's resignation.

"The initial failure was bad, and their explanations are worse," Conway and Kaiser said in a joint statement. "We demand the immediate resignation of Motor Vehicle Administrator Christine Nizer and anyone else who was part of the Hogan administration's attempt to sweep this under the rug, leaving Marylanders with concerns about their constitutional right to vote on the eve of an election."

Nizer said the agency "immediately began working around the clock to identify the scope of the problem and get information out to impacted voters."

"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 released Monday evening.

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The error comes in a big election year for Maryland. Voters will choose candidates for all 188 state legislative seats in Tuesday's primary, as well as the Democratic nominee for governor in a crowded primary. Polls have shown it to be a close contest between former NAACP President Ben Jealous and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker. Hogan is unchallenged in the primary.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn apologized Monday evening.

"While all Marylanders, who are eligible to vote in this election, can vote tomorrow, the fact that their information wasn't updated with the State Board of Elections as it should have been is unacceptable and will be remedied," Rahn said. "I apologize to the Marylanders that count on us every day, and I assure all impacted voters that we will work overtime to make this right."

Damon Effingham, acting director of the government watchdog group Common Cause, described the incident as "a catastrophic failure" of access to voting.

"For decades, the MVA has been one of the main avenues for Americans to register to vote," Effingham said in a statement. "Tonight's news represents a catastrophic failure by the MVA in their duty to ensure every eligible Marylander has access to their right to vote."

Effingham pointed out that the provisional ballots won't be counted until the second Wednesday after Tuesday's primary.

Officials say the problem relates to changes to voter addresses and party affiliation made through the MVA's website or kiosks between April 22, 2017, and June 5, 2018. If the changes were made without obtaining a driver's license, ID card or other item, they were not submitted to the elections board for processing.

Affected voters are encouraged to verify their registration information using the state elections board's voter look-up website. If the website doesn't show the voter's current address, a voter can use the board's polling place locator to find the right voting location for the voter's new address. Then, the voter can use the provisional voting process to cast a ballot on Tuesday.

Statement from MDOT MVA Administrator Christine Nizer:

The Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration (MDOT MVA) today determined that additional individuals' voter registration may be impacted by the recently reported programming error. This technical glitch impacted individuals updating their voter registration after completing a change of address transaction between April 22, 2017, until June 5, 2018, through MDOT MVA's website or self-service kiosk without purchasing a driver's license, identification card, vehicle registration, title or other item.

When it was confirmed on Friday that some individuals' updated voter registration information had not been successfully transmitted from the MDOT MVA to the State Board of Elections, we immediately began working around the clock to identify the scope of the problem and get information out to impacted voters. 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. Upon further review and analysis, we discovered that the initial data provided did not include all those impacted, and that the number of potentially impacted voters is approximately 80,000.

The State Board of Elections has sent nearly 74,000 email messages to all potentially impacted individuals who have email addresses on file with MDOT MVA encouraging them to contact the State Board of Elections to ensure their voter registration information is up to date and find their correct polling place.

No eligible voter will be denied the right to vote as a result of this programming error. Impacted voters should report to the polling place associated with their current address and vote using a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are counted in all Maryland elections.

The State Board of Elections has provided the following information to voters:

The new addresses and party affiliations could not be added to the lists of voters at each voting location. The provisional voting process, however, is a simple way for an impacted voter to update his or her information, vote in the primary election, and have his or her ballot counted. This process - in use since 2002 - has allowed thousands of voters to update an address, vote the correct ballot, and have that ballot count. Our dedicated poll workers have been thoroughly trained on this process and will be ready to help any affected voter on election day. No eligible voter will be denied the right to vote.

Because of a computer programming error, the voter registration record has not been updated with this new information. Individuals voting in tomorrow's election will have to vote a provisional ballot at the voting location where the voter lives. The provisional voting process will allow voters to update their information and vote a ballot.

Voters should: visit the polling place locator and enter their address, contact the State Board of Elections at 1-800-222-8683 between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. or email or call their local election official. For questions on election day, there will be trained poll workers to answer voter's questions and guide them through the provisional voting process.

SBE and MVA worked together to identify the impacted voters and are providing this information to the local election officials. Local election officials will use this information during their review of the provisional ballots and ensure that the provisional ballots cast by these voters are counted. SBE will verify that the address and party changes are processed and monitor the processing of these provisional ballots. SBE and MVA are also working closing together to correct the issue and ensure it does not happen again.