The head of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration faced a joint committee of legislators Thursday to explain how a computer programming mistake prevented more than 83,000 voter registration changes from being transmitted from the MVA to the State Board of Elections for processing.In the end, details of the glitch, revealed on the eve of the June 26 primary election, did not sound as nefarious an action as it did just good old human error – the result of a private contractor inadvertently writing “and” instead of “or” in a computer code modification for a new MVA app for customers to use from home.Maryland Motor Vehicle Administrator Christine E. Nizer explains to legislators the computer programming error that prevented more than 80,000 voter registration changes from being transmitted from the MVA to the State Board of Elections for processing. Photo by William F. Zorzi“I’m sorry, I’m personally sorry,” Motor Vehicle Administrator Christine E. Nizer told legislators in Annapolis. “Clearly we failed in this case.”State Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which oversees election issues, initially called the hearing upon learning of the problem June 24, the Sunday before the primary, when the number of affected voters was thought to be 18,761.By the next day, June 25, officials discovered that number was 80,041 – more than four times the number reported earlier – and at that point, Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, decided both houses needed to look into the matter and agreed to a joint committee hearing.“When you’re talking about trampling on the constitutional rights of individuals to vote, I’m just totally appalled by it,” Conway said Thursday, opening the hearing.Eventually, as state officials explained the problem during the two-hour hearing, Conway and other legislators seemed less upset by the circumstances of the screw-up. Initially, both Conway and Kaiser had called for Nizer to resign, but there was no talk of that Thursday, as more details became public during the hearing.The problem was discovered just days before the election – but after early voting was completed – because a State Board of Elections employee had not received a new voter card after changing an address at the MVA and inquired about it on June 15. Before that, no one was aware of a problem, Nizer said.Eventually state officials discovered that a total of 83,493 requests for voter registration changes made at the MVA had not been forwarded elections officials in the 13½ months between April 22, 2017, and June 5, 2018.
Maryland State Election Administrator Linda H. Lamone, left, compares notes with her deputy, Nikki Baines Charlson, as they answer questions from legislators looking into Motor Vehicle Administration computer problems. Photo by William F. Zorzi
The affected voter registration requests were those to change an address or party affiliation made by residents who used the MVA kiosks or website without paying for other services, such as a new driver’s license. That meant any affected resident wanting to vote on election day would have to use a provisional ballot – a number that turned out to be just a fraction of the more than 83,000 that had requested changes.On Thursday, Nizer told legislators that MVA and elections officials found that out of the 20,563 provisional ballots cast in the primary, just 3,538 were cast by voters affected by the computer mistake.She also said elections officials had discovered another 5,163 residents on the list of affected voters were able to vote without using a provisional ballot because they had changed addresses within the same area.The MVA is now in the process of implementing a system of checks and balances to ensure that such a problem does not happen again, Nizer told lawmakers. She also said the MVA was moving ahead with plans to modernize its informational technology system, which is actually four different computer systems, parts of which date to the 1970s.Maryland State Election Administrator Linda H. Lamone, and her deputy, Nikki Baines Charlson, also fielded questions from lawmakers Thursday.Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) seemed concerned that while the estimated overall turnout statewide was about 25 percent, among the affected voters – roughly 8,700 affected voters who used either provisional or regular ballots – the turnout was less than 10 percent.“Is it a reasonable to say that this may have had a deterrent effect on voters, or are you concerned that it could have had a deterrent effect on voters?” Luedtke asked.“Yes,” Lamone replied.“That’s a key issue for us,” Luedtke said.Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, asked Lamone if she knew of any studies that showed the use of a provisional ballot was “dissuasive.”“I have seen some discussion of that, senator,” she said. “I haven’t seen the numbers, but I have seen some discussion that people believe that it’s less than a vote – it’s not a real ballot.”
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and Del. Anne R. Kaiser, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, preside over the joint committee hearing. Photo by William F. Zorzi
Under further questioning by Pinsky, Lamone agreed that voters could have been put off by the prospect of using a provisional ballot.“There could be some number of voters out there who didn’t vote because of this error?” Pinsky asked.“That’s correct,” Lamone replied.Later, Sen. Gail H. Bates (R-Howard) asked, “Nobody was turned away because of this glitch, is that correct?”“I can’t say no one was turned away, no,” Lamone replied.“You haven’t heard of anybody turned away and told they couldn’t vote because of this glitch, is that correct?” Bates asked.“I haven’t heard that, no,” Lamone said.Other lawmakers, notably Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), both said they had heard anecdotally that voters had been turned away from polling places because they were not registered and were not offered provisional ballots.Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. directed the auditor for the Maryland Department of Transportation to conduct a comprehensive review of the MVA glitch.Hogan told WTOP-FM last week that an MVA employee overseeing information technology for the agency had been fired over the problem.“Somebody already has lost their job over it,” Hogan said. “The person in charge of all IT for the MVA is no longer working there.”On Thursday, Nizer refused to answer questions by Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) about any dismissal in her agency, saying she was unable to discuss personnel matters.Sources have told Maryland Matters that Patricia Velez, MVA’s former director of information technology, was let go as a result of the computer error.[email protected]
Bill Zorzi was a Baltimore Sun reporter and editor for nearly 20 years, focusing on government and politics. An Annapolis bureau veteran, he wrote a weekly column, “The Political Game” for the paper. Zorzi and another former Sun reporter, David Simon, are longtime collaborators on acclaimed television projects, including the HBO series, “The Wire,” and the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” which dealt with an explosive housing desegregation case in Yonkers, NY.