Twenty-five percent of citizens who attempted to register to vote at Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) offices in Maryland in the past four years were not properly added to the voting rolls, the Baltimore Sun reported last week. During that period, 120,000 citizens who submitted change-of-address information at the MVA did not have their voting records updated. And alarmingly, officials at the Maryland State Board of Elections told the Sun that about 622,165 Maryland residents who are qualified to vote are not registered to do so.
Such obvious failures to register voters violate the letter and spirit of federal law. The National Voter Registration Act (also known as the “Motor Voter law”), among its many provisions, requires that states offer voter registration opportunities to eligible citizens who apply for driver’s licenses or come in to update their information at licensing agencies.
Rather than working toward more effective compliance with federal law, officials at the MVA have tried to justify their failures by pointing fingers at the poorly served voters themselves. As the Sun reports, the MVA blamed motorists, who they say often tell clerks that they want to register to vote, but then fail to follow through by signing and returning the necessary forms. Never mind the fact that federal law requires the state to update voter records based on change of address information submitted to the MVA regardless of whether the voter signs or submits any form.
What the MVA should rightfully blame is its outdated paper-based voter registration system. As Brennan Center research has demonstrated, labor-intensive paper-based voter registration systems swamp election officials, burden taxpayers, and create a risk for every voter that human error—a misplaced form, a data entry slip, and failure to properly complete a form—will bar her access to the ballot box.
Rather than displacing the fault on voters, Maryland should use this opportunity to achieve productive change and automate its voter registration system at the MVA. As we detail in our report, Voter Registration in a Digital Age, many states have already automated their registration systems at motor vehicle offices. Paperless registration in these states has proven to be cost-effective, more accurate, and increase registration rates.
It seems Maryland considered modernizing its registration systems three years ago, when a Senate committee conceded that the MVA voter registration process “does not function as effectively as it should.” The Sun reports that, “the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee asked the MVA and the elections board to consider moving to a fully electronic system in which clerks would guide would-be voters through the registration process.”
In response, “the MVA reported back that such a change was ‘not feasible,’ because it would require the agency to hire more workers and add ’substantial wait times’ at MVA offices.” The MVA also claimed that a new system would cost millions. The MVA is wrong on both counts. Again, the experience of 17 states shows that automation is eminently feasible. Neighboring Delaware is proof of this. The state boasts one of the most effective electronic motor voter systems in the nation, known as e-Signature. Motorists fill out and sign registration forms on a touch pad, and the information is electronically submitted to election officials.
The entire system cost Delaware $600,000, not millions of dollars as Maryland fears, and has saved over $200,000 per year, according to Elaine Manlove, Delaware’s State Election Commissioner. The program has been so successful that Delaware is set to introduce e-Signature into the offices of social service agencies in the coming weeks, which will make it the first state in the country to do so. Other states have automated their systems at far lower costs: Washington spent $280,000 and Arizona spent $30,000.
Maryland’s MVA officials should have a conversation with their neighbors in Delaware to discuss ways to remedy its flawed registration system, as the Baltimore Sun, the NAACP, and the former chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s Voting Section have all urged. The Brennan Center is also available for technical support. For more information on voter registration modernization, please click here.