Maryland’s Big Primary Election Snafu

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

A woman places her purse at her feet as she prepares to vote at a polling place on June 26, 2018, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

On June 26, Maryland officials counted votes and released results on primary election winners, but the election is far from over: just over 1 percent of all votes cast have yet to be counted. Due to a glitch in the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) online and kiosk systems, more than 80,000 Marylanders had to cast provisional ballots because the system didn’t update their voter information changes in time for the primary on June 26.

One of those voters was Erin Bowman. A Baltimore resident, Bowman went to the First English Lutheran Church in Guilford, Maryland, (which was in her congressional district) to vote in the primary. Since first registering to vote over a decade ago, Bowman has never missed an election, and has always done her research on ballot questions and candidates, so she went to her polling station well-prepared. Upon arriving, Bowman was told by a polling staffer that because of her recent move to the area, she had to vote on a provisional ballot. 

Despite promises by Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s office that “every voter will be able to vote, and every vote will be counted,” Bowman was discouraged by the requirement. And it’s likely many other voters whose votes were not guaranteed, and may not be confirmed for at least another week had similar reactions.

This snafu comes on the coattails of the Supreme Court’s decision in Benisek v. Lamone—a ruling which was “not surprising, but discouraging”, says Damon Effingham, the acting director of Common Cause Maryland. The Benisek decision is just one of four cases in the past two weeks where the high court avoided decisions on partisan gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, at its core, is one vehicle for voter disenfranchisement—contorting districts and stripping power away from an individual voters ballot by “packing” and “cracking” certain types of voters into certain districts. 

Bowman felt the effects of both gerrymandering and the MVA technical problem. Upon receiving her ballot, Bowman didn’t enter the formal voting booth, but instead went to a plastic table with cardboard dividers (this was the station protocol for provisional voters). As she began filling out the ballot, she didn’t recognize the names on the ballot. Concerned, Bowman thought she may have had the ballot for a different congressional district. Midway through the ballot, she finally pulled out her phone to check her district on the Maryland Board of Election website. She had a ballot for Congressional District Three, not Congressional District Seven where she actually lived—and her old address wasn’t even in Congressional District Three.

"I was really confused by the whole system and I couldn't help but feel like it was my fault," she told The American Prospect.

But when she approached the one of the poll workers, who claimed to have 30 years experience, she was told that “[the Congressional District Three] ballot shouldn’t have been at this location at all.” After making a few calls, the poll worker confessed that she was equally as confused, adding that things were “off” this year. Eventually, she just told Bowman that other people in her area were voting on this ballot. In her decade of voting experience, Bowman had never experienced such a mix-up, and humbly proceeded to vote using the incorrect Congressional District Three Ballot. 

Bowman later found out that poll workers were distributing both Congressional District Three and Congressional District Seven ballots at the First English Lutheran Church. The two districts are so contorted by gerrymandering that they abruptly cut Bowman’s neighborhood into jagged pieces—in 2011 the governor and state lawmakers redrew the district’s boundaries to benefit Democrats, so that the Democratic Party eventually held seven (out of eight congressional seats) instead of the five they had before redistricting. If neighborhood boundaries were taken into account instead and a single congressional district represented the entire neighborhood this mistake may not have occurred.

The Motor Vehicle Administration technical issues coupled with extreme gerrymandering undoubtedly undermines voter confidence in the entire system, making voters feel that they were robbed of their right to vote in last Tuesday’s election. If an individual voter does not feel that their vote will make a difference or that the system is rigged unfairly, that individual may be less inclined to cast a ballot in future elections.

While the United States already has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developing world, Maryland was in the top half of states in voter turnout, both for this year’s primary and the 2016 general elections. Given the confidence-depleting circumstances of the June primary for tens of thousands of Maryland’s voters (circumstances that are all too familiar to residents of North Carolina and Virginia), state election officials can count themselves fortunate if they can address the glitches to voters’ satisfaction and preserve Maryland’s relatively-high voter turnout rates through November.  

The silver lining, however, is that extreme gerrymandering and other vote-diluting strategies are galvanizing some voters to take action. Immediately after leaving the polling station, Bowman called the candidate she had intended to vote for with her apologies, as well as the Maryland ACLU and the Maryland Board of Elections to report the incident. In retrospect, she regrets not calling them right from the polling place.

Across the country, citizens are more politically engaged in their communities than ever, participating in door-to-door canvassing, phonebanks, demonstrations, and petitions to end what some believe is the “root of all political evil:” extreme gerrymandering.

But citizens haven’t stopped there and have come up a variety of creative approaches to educate people about the issue. There’s “Gerrymandering the Movie;” a nationwide writing contest to spur academic discussions; a race around the one of the country’s most gerrymandered districts (it was a triathlon of sorts—because the district was so contorted, organizers thought that the biking-swimming-running event would get the message across)There’s even birthday party for the founding father of gerrymandering, Elbridge Gerry. Seriously, the 274-year-old has his own vibrant Twitter account to raise awareness. 

Whether this kind of voting rights activism will persuade voters like Bowman to head to the polls in November is, of course, unknown. But one thing is certain, it’s no longer just good government and voting rights groups like Common Cause and FairVote who want change. Gerrymandering-related voting mistakes have motivated voters to act, and now voters want reforms, too. 

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