Elections Offices Powerless Against Voting Fraud

In a carefully scrutinized election this year, thousands of eligible Maryland voters will be left out, while others who are ineligible to vote could actually cast ballots.

With no investigatory arm, no access to criminal records and limited staff, the State Board of Elections said it can do little to verify an individual's voting eligibility (search).

"When someone signs a voter application, they sign under penalty of perjury of the law," the information is valid, said Jan Hejl (search), a State Board of Elections voter registration manager.

But with high registration rates — 19,000 applications flooded Baltimore City (search) on one day alone — the elections board said it is logistically impossible to verify the validity of each application.

Experts say ineligible voters are probably registered nationwide.

"We would love to have more information," said Mary Cramer Wagner, the director of voter registration for the elections board. But voting is a basic right and registering should not be burdensome, she said.

While some ineligible voters might slip through, the problem is not a prevalence of illegitimate voters, but the tens of thousands who are disenfranchised and among the 1 million unregistered voters in Maryland, said John Willis, a lawyer and former Maryland secretary of state. At particular issue are voters with felony records.

In 2002, the General Assembly repealed the lifetime voting ban on two-time ex-felons. Now, with certain exceptions, individuals who are convicted of two or more non-violent "infamous" crimes — mostly felonies or crimes of deceit, fraud and corruption — cannot regain the right to vote until three years after they complete all sentencing conditions.

Courts regularly provide the elections board with names of individuals whose criminal convictions render them ineligible to vote, and those voters are expunged. Voters are notified their names will be removed and may contest the action.

The problem comes when never-registered citizens with serious criminal convictions add their names to the rolls. The elections board, Hejl said, cannot track the criminal history of first-time Maryland voter registrants to see if prior convictions either in Maryland or elsewhere should bar them from registering.

"Instead of spending $50 million to find 10 people, we would be better off by simplifying the law," to give disenfranchised voters back their voting right, Willis said.

Almost 130,000 citizens were disenfranchised by Maryland laws in the 2000 election, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another 200,000 are eligible to vote, but do not know the law has changed, said Hassan Allen-Giordano, director of the Maryland Voter Registration Restoration Coalition.

The coalition has targeted former felons in registration campaigns. Some Maryland detention centers have registered pretrial detainees and other eligible inmates.

In Montgomery County, Friends of the Library registered 133 eligible detainees in the first two weeks of October, said Arthur Wallenstein, corrections director for Montgomery County.

In Baltimore City, a corrections officer helped 600 pretrial detainees register for absentee ballots on his own time, said Barbara Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Pretrial Detention and Services.

Election administration in Maryland is among the top in the nation, said Willis, but he faults the complexity of disenfranchisement laws for contributing to the state's low voter registration rate. Individuals who could vote in most of the rest of the country are blocked from voting here, he said.

"Maryland is not progressive on this issue. Most Republican states are way ahead of us on this," Willis said.

The Sentencing Project, a non-profit D.C.-based organization studying felony disenfranchisement laws, reports Maryland's former offenders' prohibitions place it among the 14 most-restrictive states. People think of infamous crimes as all murder and mayhem, Willis said, but crimes like tax fraud and drug possession can restrict voting rights.

About 900 citizens were purged from voter rolls for felony convictions in 2003 and about 1,500 in 2002, the elections board said. Since courts do not reinstate voting rights and studies show even probation and parole officers lack understanding of current voting laws, voter rights' advocates say thousands of ex-offenders are unfamiliar with their rights or have difficulty proving they are clear to vote.

The problem is that "you don't necessarily get a piece of paper saying you finished your probation on Oct.1," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project.

Last session, an initiative to end the three-year waiting period for second-time offenders died in the General Assembly. Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, D-Baltimore, has pre-filed a bill to automatically restore voting rights upon incarceration release. Voter advocates say current disenfranchisement laws are unfair.

"I'm a former felon and I believe . . . if someone is not afforded their right to vote, they are still being taxed without a say in the representation," said Allen-Giordano. Restoring voting rights could help reduce recidivism, he said, by allowing ex-offenders to have a say in their communities.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.