by Anna Killius, Contributor
So much can go wrong before a voter ever reaches the voting booth. Voters encounter registration requirements, polling place assignments and identification law confusion. On Election Day, long lines and chilly temperatures can test the fortitude of even the most dedicated citizens. But imagine waiting for hours and dutifully handing over your driver’s license and voter registration card, only to be told that you are missing from the poll books. According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, you no longer live at your address, and your precinct has been changed. This is precisely what Christopher Lochner faced when he arrived at the Hereford polling station on November 6th, and he may not have been alone. With Maryland’s centralized voter registration system, it is now easier for voters to inadvertently signal a change of address, potentially leaving displaced and disgruntled voters to cast provisional ballots.
Centralized, computerized systems are a relatively recent addition to the election process, but, for Maryland, the idea is nothing new. After the 1994 gubernatorial election was decided by less than 6,000 votes, Governor Glendening created a 13-member task force to investigate and suggest reforms for the Maryland election system. Among those suggestions was a centralized state registration roll to replace those individually maintained by the counties. Budget constraints prevented Maryland from acting on this ambitious plan until Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002.
HAVA was a response to the many weaknesses plaguing the decentralized voting process highlighted by the 2000 Presidential Election. Through HAVA, Congress set minimum election administration standards and provided funding to assist states in implementing these standards. As part of the new requirements, States were obligated to create and update a computerized statewide voter list containing the registration information of all registered voters. In 2006, Maryland introduced MDVOTERS, a registration database created by Seasia Infotech that “interfaces with other agencies databases to maintain accurate records.” This year, Maryland joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, which allows participating states to compare their centralized databases to further improve voter log accuracy.
So how does increased efficiency and improved accuracy lead to displaced voters? With the technological advances available, the State Board of Elections can and must update registration rolls to reflect the most current data, using two sources many voters may not expect. One source is the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration database. According to one Maryland Elections Director, some Baltimore city voters have changed their driver’s license addresses to the home of a Baltimore County relative in order to avoid higher insurance rates. The unforeseen cost? They will be in the county, not city, poll books the following November. A second example of inadvertent address issues arises in the state’s direct democracy process. Any voter who signed a referendum petition in the past two years and listed an address different from that listed on his or her voter registration form may have changed his or her voter registration address in the process. Maryland voters filed over 200,000 signatures to put an unprecedented number of state laws up for popular vote. As Lochner learned, each referendum petition is a legally binding document and acts as a change-of-address form. If a voter writes down the wrong address, he may be re-registering himself—without knowing—in an entirely new precinct.
While a few unsuspecting voters may find themselves at the wrong polling place on Election Day, the centralized registration database does allow Maryland to protect voters who move without informing the State Board of Elections. Additionally, registration changes are kept current throughout the year, preventing heavy backlogs during election seasons and repeat or fraudulent registrations. Finally, registered voters who do find themselves having to cast provisional ballots can be assured that, though delayed, their votes are in fact counted by checking the status of their ballots ten days after the election through a “voter look-up” website.