ANNAPOLIS — At least 8,000 registered voters received cards recently from the State Board of Elections telling them they were not registered. The cards were apparently part of a mailing to a million people eligible to vote in an effort to encourage greater voter registration.
But after receiving dozens of distressed calls from senior citizens, Howard County Democratic Chairman Michael McPherson said Tuesday that the effort to push online voter registration by the state elections board “smacks of voter suppression.”
According to David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, the state board — in conjunction with the Pew Electronic Registration Information Center — notified 1,000,000 Maryland residents by postcard beginning in late September they were not registered to vote.
The card provided instructions on how to register online and included a phone number to the new state election board call center.
The challenge with the mailing, however, is that of those 1,000,000 postcard recipients, about 8,000 were already registered, Becker said.
As a result, state and local election officials received “roughly 8,000 calls” from these registered voters, Becker said, based on information he got from the state election board. State election officials did not respond directly to inquiries, but instead referred questions about the mailing to Becker.
“All this did was confuse a lot of people who are registered to vote who received that damn card,” McPherson said. “This to me can smack of voter suppression depending on how you look at it.”
McPherson said an 87-year-old Howard County woman who recently received the postcard called his office and cried to him for 17 minutes.
“She’s been a voter in Howard County for over 50 years,” said McPherson, 80. “And she’s being told she is not registered to vote. She doesn’t understand this. Something needs to be done. You don’t send out something like that 30 days before an election and get people all upset, particularly those of us who are over 60 years of age.”
Howard County resident Susan Gearing, 65, a registered Democrat, received her notification postcard last Friday.
“I was dismayed,” Gearing said. “It said I’m not registered, and I could register online. I have been voting all my life. I know I am registered.”
Gearing called the phone number on the postcard and was told she was not registered and that she would have to “re-register.” She was also told it was “probably” because the information on her Maryland driver’s license did not match her voter information.
As part of the new state elections board voter roll clean up program initiated earlier this year, voter information data was merged with motor vehicle records as a way of cleaning up voter rolls when the information didn’t match, Becker said.
On Monday, Gearing contacted state board deputy administrator Ross Goldstein. She said Goldstein told her she was registered, but as a “confidential” voter. Gearing said Goldstein offered no explanation of what a “confidential” voter was.
The same day Gearing contacted McPherson, who had access to some voter rolls, and he told her she was not registered to vote, but her dead father was. The day after Gearing received her post card, she said an absentee ballot came in the mail for her father who has been dead three years.
The spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party said the state party is not concerned about any kind of active voter suppression.
“Our understanding is that this is a good faith effort by the state board of elections to register voters in a countdown to the election,” said Isaac Salazar, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. “The Democratic Party is not concerned that this is any kind of active voter suppression. We trust the state board of elections is going to clarify the voting registration information.”
State Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-7th, is also looking into the state board mailing.
“The congressman is aware of it and is looking into it,” said Cummings spokesman Mike Christianson. “Anything else is just speculation.”
Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform, has initiated his own investigation into voter suppression efforts by outside groups.