WASHINGTON – Randy Cusick, a Republican chief election judge in Prince George’s County, has had enough of working the polls after having to turn away almost 120 potential voters Tuesday.
“I’ve decided my career as an election judge is over. The county just doesn’t have its act together,” Cusick said. “It’s much more difficult than it should be.”
But it was not just Prince George’s County that didn’t have its act together. Hundreds of voters across the state found out on Election Day that they were not registered in their precincts, which they thought they had done through the Motor Vehicle Administration’s “Motor Voter” program.
State Board of Elections officials said they are now working to fix the problem, which they first got a glimpse of during this year’s primary elections.
Elections officials said the problem came from voters who moved to another county, filled out a change-of-address form at the MVA and assumed the process was complete. But because voter registration does not automatically transfer from county to county, the change-of-address form served only to drop them from the voting rolls. They should have filled out a follow-up letter from the elections board, but many apparently did not.
“The confusion is people got a letter and application and simply discarded them because they thought, everything is already updated by the Motor Vehicle Administration so it must be updated by the election board,” said Tom Surock, MVA’s motor voter coordinator. “That’s not the case.”
Surock said the problem is that there is a statewide system for drivers licenses, but not for voter registration. The elections board is now working to create a statewide system that will keep track of registered voters, without them having to re-register every time they move to a new county.
Elections officials did not fix the glitches after the primary because they were not aware of the size of the problem. Linda Lamone, administrator of elections for the state, noted that this was the “first presidential election in full force and effect” since Maryland began the motor voter program in 1996.
But Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the board had no excuse for not at least warning voters before the general election.
“The state Board of Elections was ill-prepared when it had so much time to get prepared,” Ellington said. “The people did what they were supposed to do and the government let them down.”
The board’s solution for Election Day was to let voters cast ballots if they could show proof of previous registration in the state and that they had moved after Nov. 1, 1998.
That meant that Election Day judges — already facing crowds of frustrated citizens — were then tied up on the phones all day with county board and MVA officials, trying to figure out who could actually vote.
“It completely overloaded the phone system for everyone. As soon as they set the phone down, they had to pick it right up again,” said Rick Goehler, election director for Montgomery County.
Cusick said by the end of the day, election judges were completely irritated with the system.
“Everyone was complaining about just the sheer number of people with problems with registration,” he said. “Most were related to the MVA.”
Cusick also had to deal with the bitterness of those voters, saying he especially remembers turning away a young man who had driven to two different counties to vote. “That’s a bad message to send to a young voter,” Cusick said.
Howard County Election Director Robert Antonetti estimated that 200 to 300 people in his county were affected by motor voter problems. But while he sympathized with those voters, he also said, “Part of the blame is on their shoulder.”
But Ellington said would-be voters cannot be blamed for this problem.
“If it’s the people’s word versus the government’s word, I believe the citizens,” he said.
Ellington also said the problems may have affected the outcome of the election.
“When nationally it becomes an issue of who won the popular vote, I think yes it had an impact,” he said. “The state Board of Elections owes the people of Maryland an explanation.”
— CNS reporter Mark K. Matthews contributed to this report.