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Maryland officials blame 'programming error' for mishandling of 80,000 voter registrations

Affected voters will have to cast provisional ballots due to the error, which was disclosed just as the state heads to the polls for Tuesday's primary elections.

Benjamin Freed
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Benjamin Freed Technology Editor

Benjamin Freed is the technology editor for StateScoop, covering how states and cities make decisions about the technology that powers government s...

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As many as 80,000 Maryland voters will have to cast provisional ballots in Tuesday's primary elections across the state as a result of what state officials are calling a "programming error" that stopped their registrations from being transmitted from the Department of Motor Vehicle Administration to the state's Board of Elections.

The error affected voters' attempts to update their addresses or party affiliations over a nearly 15-month span from April 2017 until earlier this month. The error was first disclosed Saturday, when the MVA said that about 19,000 registration forms had failed to be submitted to elections officials. That number more than quadrupled Monday night, just hours before Marylanders headed to the polls to pick candidates for governor, a U.S. Senate seat, eight U.S. House seats and every seat in the state legislature.

Affected voters who arrive at polling locations Tuesday will be given provisional ballots, the Board of Elections said. But Maryland does not begin to count provisional ballots until the second Wednesday following an election, in this case July 5. That could prove critical in the six-way Democratic primary for governor and a number of local races with similarly crowded fields.

The Board of Elections also sent 74,000 email notifications to "potentially impacted voters" and has said that no one will be denied a ballot because of the programming error.

The Maryland glitch is the second major lapse in voter registrations to hit a primary election this month. During the California primary on June 5, officials in Los Angeles County acknowledged leaving more than 118,000 people off the voter rolls. The affected voters were given provisional ballots, which took weeks to count.

Aside from acknowledging the existence of the error, Maryland officials have not said anything else about the glitch. The chief information officers at both the MVA and Board of Elections did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Michael Leahy, the state's acting secretary for information technology.

While the failure to send voter registration forms from one agency to another is being pinned on a technical shortfall, it also calls out the vulnerability of state voter files, which have been targeted by foreign hackers in previous elections. Russian operatives in 2016 attempted to hack into the election systems of 21 states, according to U.S. intelligence officials, and in at least one case — Illinois — hackers successfully penetrated the voter registration system, though no records were altered.

But a malfunction can be as consequential as a cyberattack. "Almost everything that a malicious actor might try to do can also happen by accident," Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice told the Washington Post.

Some states run daily backups of their voter files to prevent these kinds of losses. Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos endorsed that practice last week at a Senate hearing on election security.

But securing voter registration databases should be top of mind for state elections and IT officials, Patrick Sullivan, the director of security technology and strategy at Akamai, told StateScoop. Along with potential technical glitches, voter files are among the top targets for hackers seeking to tamper with electoral processes.

"The attack surface is enormous," he said.

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