In a stunning last-minute development on the eve of Maryland’s primary election, the state Motor Vehicle Administration admitted Monday that the number of residents who thought they changed their voter registration, but actually had not because of an agency computer glitch, is now estimated to be 80,000 – more than four times the number officials initially reported over the weekend.
The agency’s admission just hours before polls open Tuesday drew immediate calls by legislative leaders for the resignation of MVA Administrator Christine E. Nizer and anyone in the administration of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. who tried to conceal the error.
The MVA blunder means that 80,000 voters who attempted to change either their address or party affiliation using the agency kiosks or website without paying for other services, such as a new driver’s license, will have to use a provisional ballot to vote in Tuesday’s primary election.
“In our sense of urgency to inform the public … the numbers that were initially reported did not accurately reflect the total scope of the people impacted,” Nizer said in a statement. “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.”
State officials repeatedly said that no eligible voter would be denied the right to vote because of the bungled registration changes. Use of a provisional ballot Tuesday would allow voters to update their address, vote the correct ballot and have that ballot count, election officials have said.
But it was not immediately clear how the use of so many provisional ballots – if there indeed are enough available to meet the demand Tuesday – would affect the timeliness of preliminary election results. By law, the count of provisional ballots does not begin until July 5.
The changes voters thought they were making were never transmitted by the MVA to the State Board of Elections for processing because of a computer programming error, state officials said. The problems occurred in the 13½ months between April 22, 2017, and June 5, 2018.
Initially, the number of affected voters was put at 18,761 after state officials first acknowledged the problem late Saturday night, but that number skyrocketed to 80,000 late Monday afternoon.
Nizer’s latest revelation prompted a stinging joint statement by two powerful legislators whose committees oversee election issues — state Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), who chairs the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Delegates.
“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,” the Conway and Kaiser statement said.
On Sunday, upon first learning of the MVA’s failure, Conway announced that her committee would hold a hearing in July on the matter, saying the lapse would “confuse voters, suppress turnout, and disenfranchise thousands of Marylanders.”
That, in turn, brought a strong response from the governor’s press office, which issued a statement calling the problem “nothing more than an unfortunate clerical error” and saying that Conway’s allegations were a “conspiracy theory … so absurd and hateful that it should not be dignified by a response.”
The Conway-Kaiser statement Monday seized on that reaction by Hogan’s office.
“Yesterday, the governor’s office brushed off criticism of the MVA as a ‘clerical error’ and a ‘conspiracy theory,’ ” the legislators said in their statement. “Today, they revealed the problem is exponentially worse than they told us, affecting 80,000 Marylanders that we know of.”
“Their initial failure was bad, and their explanations are worse,” the statement said.
On Monday, the governor’s press office was a bit more tempered in its response to the growing problem at the MVA, an agency of the Maryland Department of Transportation.
“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,” Amelia T. Chasse, the governor’s director of communications, said in a statement.
“Our administration is obviously incredibly disappointed that this happened,” Chasse said. “What matters most is that every eligible voter will be able to vote, and every vote will be counted.”
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat running for governor, skewered the Hogan administration Sunday and wasted no time doing the same Monday, after the MVA’s latest admission.
“Eighteen thousand voting Marylanders being incorrectly registered is dysfunctional management,” Madaleno said in a statement. “Eight-one thousand [sic] voting Marylanders being incorrectly registered is a catastrophic failure.
Madaleno, who is vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, joined his fellow legislators in demanding Nizer’s resignation, as well as the firing of “any Hogan administration staff that share responsibility for this egregious failure of basic democratic processes should be immediately dismissed.”
He urged the administration to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of provisional ballots available at polling places Tuesday.
And, he went a step further in saying the Hogan re-election campaign “should immediately pull off the air any paid advertising until a Democratic opponent has been officially declared.”
“The chaos being created by this failure subjects real harm to our most cherished democratic values,” Madaleno said in the statement. “Literally hundreds of decisions of who are nominees will be have been needlessly put in limbo.”
The State Board of Elections, an agency independent of the executive branch, has sent emails to those affected voters whose email addresses are on file with the MVA — nearly 74,000 of the roughly 80,000 residents who had attempted to change their registration using the MVA kiosks or website, officials said.
Election officials said earlier that affected voters should first verify their voter registration information using the State Board of Elections website (https://voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/VoterSearch).
If the voter’s current address is not there, the voter can use the election board’s polling place locator (https://voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/PollingPlaceSearch) to find the correct voting location for his or her new address, officials said.
Affected voters with questions about their registrations and what to expect on election day should call the State Board of Elections, 1-800-222-8683, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday, election day, or e-mail [email protected] for help.
Election officials also said there would be trained poll workers to answer questions and guide voters through the provisional voting process.
The Maryland Democratic Party also is making lawyers available to voters who have difficulty accessing their ballot. If that is the case, Kathleen A. Matthews, the state party chairwoman, urged voters to “call the party’s Voter Protection Hotline at 1-888-678-8683 to speak with one of the party’s experienced voter protection attorneys.”
Everything you wanted to know about provisional ballots and voting is here, on the State Board of Elections website: