ANNAPOLIS — The head of the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration apologized to lawmakers for more than 80,000 voters caught up in programming glitch prior to the June primary vote.
Christine Nizer, administrator for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, took responsibility for what she called an inadvertent programming mistake during a hearing with members of the House Ways and Means and Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committees.
The glitch caused headaches for elections officials and voters days before the June 26 primary and could have potentially affected more than 80,000 voters. And while the actual number of affected voters ended up being much smaller than feared, lawmakers expressed concerns that some who believed they were registered ultimately decided not to cast ballots last month.
“I’m sorry,” said Nizer. “I’m really sorry. I personally feel an obligation to voter registration, and obviously we failed in this case.”
Maryland residents, as in other states, can register to vote and make changes to that registration through the Motor Vehicle Administration as part of the 1993 federal law commonly referred to as “Motor Voter.” In Maryland, changes made through an online system and at self-serve kiosks are supposed to be transmitted six nights a week to the Maryland State Board of Elections.
But in April 2017, the Motor Vehicle Administration attempted to change its online system to allow some users to begin the process of applying for a driver’s license at home and then finish the application in person. A contractor responsible for writing the code made changes that only sent voter registration data to elections officials if they completed the transaction and purchased a driver’s license, identification card, vehicle title or registration.
Nizer said the agency tested the code but the glitch went undetected until June 15, 2018, when an employee of the Board of Elections checked her own voter registration after a driver had inquired about an error.
The motor vehicle agency and the elections board said about 72,000 records were not transferred properly. Of those, about 3,538 voters were asked to cast votes using a provisional ballot. Another nearly 5,200 voters were able to vote as usual.
Nizer told the committee that since discovering the issue, the contractor who wrote the code has been fired. The agency has also implemented weekly audits to ensure that data transfers occur without further issues. Additionally, the agency is upgrading its technology, some of which dates back to the early 1970s.
Nizer said the agency is also cooperating with an outside audit to determine if other concerns exist.
“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to make sure the reliability, transparency and the confidence is restored,” said Nizer.
Damon Effingham, director of Common Cause Maryland, said the issue at the Motor Vehicle Administration should trigger reviews at other agencies that also accept voter registrations, including the state’s health benefit exchange and the Department of Human Resources.
Effingham said his group was disappointed with the communications from the MVA to the public, saying there was a lack of notice on the agency’s website and no use of social media accounts to alert voters.
“The cross promotion between agencies and the administration has seemed sometimes inappropriate from our viewpoint,” Effingham. “On Election Day there wasn’t any information about this. There were retweets of the governor discussing the Audubon Society and the importance of sunscreen. While these are important, on Election Day it was much more important to get information out about provisional ballots to voters.”
Some lawmakers expressed concerns that the glitch ending up surpressing voter turnout.
“I’d like to think this is all innocent,” said Sen. Ron Young, D-Frederick. “Maybe in some way, you can show that it is.”
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and Senate co-chair of the hearing, called the glitch “a trampling of constitutional rights.”
“Their systems probably need to be upgraded so it’s more accurate, that way you don’t have the trampling of voters rights and having them be disenfranchised,” said Conway.
Del. Ann Kaiser, D-Montgomery and House co-chair of the hearing, said she was concerned elections and motor vehicle administration officials were underplaying the effect on voters, which likely included some deciding to stay home.
“I certainly don’t believe this was intentional, but just because it wasn’t intentional doesn’t mean someone’s right weren’t trampled on in some way or limited,” said Kaiser.
Kaiser said there is no way to know how many people may have been turned away or decided not to vote at all because of the problem.
“There’s never a way to know, not just in this election cycle but in every election cycle, how many people come to vote and are told they have to vote provisional and are angry and leave,” said Kaiser. “One can never know, but let’s just know it’s not zero and let’s just know it’s a shame every time that happens.”