MVA to overhaul voter registration process

Sun analysis found 25 percent failure rate

March 20, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The Motor Vehicle Administration is planning to overhaul its voter registration procedures after an analysis showed that one in four motorists who tried to sign up at an MVA office never made it to the voter rolls.

The agency plans to discard the paper-based process that lawmakers described as "antiquated" and move to the fully automated system long desired by Maryland State Board of Elections officials, who field angry phone calls every year from Marylanders who discover that they're not registered when they try to vote on Election Day.

"There is always room for improvement," said MVA Administrator John Kuo. "We're always constantly looking at other practices around the country."

The effort comes after The Baltimore Sun reported that 144,442 would-be voters started the registration process at an MVA office during the past four years but failed to get on the voter rolls.

Kuo took a half-dozen staffers this month to Delaware, identified by The Sun as having what is widely viewed as the premier "motor-voter" system in the country. They concluded that it would be relatively painless for Maryland to copy it. Kuo is hopeful that the new process will be in place by next year.

House Majority Leader Kumar Barve expressed outrage this year when he heard committee testimony detailing thousands of failures in the MVA system. He said it is "terrific" that the MVA wants to fix their system.

"I do wish they'd done it sooner," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "I am glad they are going to now."

Maryland is one of many states that have struggled to implement the 1993 federal law requiring state motor vehicle departments to offer motorists who are renewing their driver's licenses the opportunity to register to vote.

In Maryland, the MVA has helped sign up 451,386 new voters since January 2007. Even so, good- government advocates were stunned by the 25 percent failure rate.

A disproportionately large share of the failures came in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, the state's two largest majority African-American jurisdictions.

Baltimore, home to 10.8 percent of the state's population, had 13.2 percent of the registration failures. Prince George's, home to 15 percent of the population, saw 18.1 percent of the failures. Civil rights activists have scheduled a town meeting on the topic for later this month.

The new process would eliminate paper: Motorists would use a touch screen to pick a political party and sign registration forms. The elections board still would need to check the data to be sure nobody signs up more than once, but that task would be far simpler with an electronic system, elections officials say.

The current system requires MVA clerks to print out voter registration forms and hand them to motorists, who fill them out by hand. Would-be voters may leave the forms in a drop-box at the MVA office or mail them to the elections board.

MVA officials attribute the 25 percent failure rate to Marylanders failing to return the forms.

But elections officials believe otherwise: They say some registrations were getting lost in the process of staff members picking up thousands of forms and manually entering the data into a computer.

"It has been very frustrating for us dealing with it," said Linda H. Lamone, the Maryland State Board of Elections administrator.

Sh has long urged a fully electronic approach, such as the system in Delaware.

"It is going to go a really, really long way to eliminate the people falling through the cracks," Lamone said.

Good-government advocates view the Delaware system as the gold for motor-voter registration. The state saw immediate savings after automating the process two years ago: It needed fewer positions because data-entry work dropped off precipitously.

Lawmakers in Maryland have been aware of the registration discrepancies for years. In 2008, a Senate committee required the MVA to study a move to a fully automated system. The agency resisted, saying it would increase wait times for motorists and force employees to ask questions about political party preferences.

Instead, the MVA and the elections board developed an ad hoc solution: They mailed follow-up voter registration forms to the people they suspected were falling between the cracks.

The MVA mailed 580,000 letters and forms to Marylanders over the past four years, according to data provided to The Sun.

Kuo, the MVA administrator, said agency analysts are studying how much work the new system would entail, and he said he did not have an estimate for the cost. Elections officials would also have to modify their computer databases and don't know yet how much that would cost.

Kuo estimates the new plan could add up to 90 seconds for customers waiting for their driver's licenses to be processed. In Delaware, wait times have grown by 30 seconds. The average wait time for a new driver's license in Maryland is 40 minutes, Kuo said.

Kuo said the agency will need to retrain the 800 front-line MVA clerks to use new software and become accustomed to the new process.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

http://www.twitter.com/annielinskey

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