What if you thought you had gone through the process of making sure you could vote, but later were denied the chance to do so on Election Day? According to a recent Baltimore Sun investigation, that very situation is exactly what has been happening to tens of thousands of Marylanders. The Sun found that some 25% of all the Marylanders who, during the past four years, tried to register to vote at the Maryland Motor Vehicles Agency (MVA) offices were never properly recorded in voter registration logs, leaving them ineligible to vote.
MVA officials justified these numbers by blaming the applicants, saying many did not fill out forms properly. A spokesperson claimed it was enough to “offer the opportunity to start the process” and that “we [the MVA] do what we're federally required to do under the motor voter law." However, under the Motor Voter law, a MVA is required to help voters register, not merely have forms available. It is a certainty that when the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, or “motor voter”) law was passed, the assumption was eligible voters who registered at the MVA would actually get… registered.
It is simply unacceptable that at least 144,442 people in Maryland believed they had registered to vote but were never registered, without being informed of the problem. A disproportionate percentage of the people who were never properly processed were from Baltimore and Prince George’s County – areas with large numbers of racial minorities. Former Department of Justice voting rights chief John Tanner pointed out in a Sun commentary that the MVA may not only be in violation of the NVRA, but the Voting Rights Act as well.
While long lines of disgruntled people at the overburdened MVA are an unfortunate reality, it is undeniable there is a serious issue with voter registration in Maryland when such a large number of citizens can be left disenfranchised. If we had a goal of universal voter registration where every eligible voter was registered to vote and no ineligible voter was registered to vote, this situation would of course be avoided. Tanner suggests that Maryland move to automatic voter registration procedures where “every qualified customer of the MVA or a public assistance or disability services office automatically goes on the list of citizens eligible to vote.” Duplications and omissions on the voter rolls would be eliminated and citizens would have the security in knowing that the time they take off from work to vote will not be time wasted.
Short of uuniversal adult voter registration, there are other more immediate ways to improve Maryland’s voter registration system. For example, Delaware is among the states that have created innovative (and relatively inexpensive) technology-based systems that cut down on human error by cutting down on the amount of people that handle each applicant’s information. In Delaware an applicant sends the information directly from a computer to the database, eliminating the ability for paperwork to be separated, lost or mishandled in the process. This also solves the concern over incomplete applications, as the computer system can quickly prompt applicants for missing information, and send a confirmation letter when each application is complete. Applicants under a technology based system immediately know if they are registered and, since the information is actually handled by fewer people and goes directly into a database to verify the registration, the possibility for fraud and identity theft is reduced.
Other improvements that could produce more options for voters are systems such as same day voter registration, which allows voters who are not registered prior to the election to vote and register on the same day. Already in place in several states, this system often increases overall voter turnout.
Ultimately, however, we don’t do a portion of what should be done to improve voting because we have not committed to an affirmative right to vote under the U.S. Constitution. Right now, there is no guarantee the disenfranchised Marylanders would have had their vote counted even if it was properly cast. Many adult citizens in Maryland can’t even legally register due to prior felony convictions – and may not even be aware that even attempting to register could get them into new trouble. Because we lack a right to vote, it is possible that the votes in a city like Baltimore and the votes in a city like Annapolis will continue to be handled in completely different fashions, with different protections for the voter.
For the moment, Marylanders are right to feel wary of relying on their registration at the MVA. Anyone who is unsure as to the status of their Maryland registration can search here to find information on the status of their application.