Finger-pointing abounds in Montgomery County party registration problems -- Gazette.Net


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When neighbors Robert Debernardis and Carl Mauri walked into their precinct to vote in the June 24 Democratic primary, the two Potomac men got unsettling news: Neither was registered to vote as a Democrat.

For the past 42 years, Debernardis said, he has been a registered Democrat, and has never missed voting in a presidential or gubernatorial election. And for at least the last six years Mauri has been with the party, saying he changed his affiliation to Democrat to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.

Yet somehow both men were registered as unaffiliated voters when they reached the polls in June.

As many as a few hundred of Montgomery County’s 675,000 registered voters are believed to have fallen victim to altered voter registrations, a problem local officials say is a computer glitch at the Motor Vehicle Administration and what state officials say is a local failure to properly process the applications.

Both Debernardis and Mauri have traced the change in their voter registrations to separate visits to the Motor Vehicle Administration’s Walnut Hill center in Gaithersburg.

In January, Debernardis visited the facility to renew his driver’s license. On Jan. 22 at midnight, his party affiliation was changed to “other,” according to an electronic voter registration form filed with the Board of Elections.

In March, Mauri said he made a similar visit to the Walnut Hill facility to replace a lost license. On March 25 at midnight, his registration also was changed to “other.”

Margaret Jurgensen, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said her board is investigating the issue.

When the county board identifies problems, it notifies state officials, who work with the motor vehicles agency, she said. “Different issues have arisen in the past and the state board works with [the agency] to correct those issues.”

Her board has known about other problems with registrations at the motor vehicle agency for about the past two years, Jurgensen said.

Jurgensen has experienced the issues first-hand. She said that when she went to renew her license, she was asked if she wanted to register to vote, and while she said “no,” a new voter registration was nonetheless generated.

As for what happened to Debernardis and Mauri, the Motor Vehicle Administration claims no knowledge of the situation.

Agency spokesman Buel C. Young said no such problem has been reported to the agency, nor have complaints been filed that the forms being submitted to the State Board of Elections are in error.

Young said each clerk at the Motor Vehicle Administration is supposed to ask drivers renewing or replacing a license if they want to update their voter registration.

Specifically, a computer will prompt clerks to ask if a driver wishes “to update your party affiliation.” To continue through the computer system, either a “yes” or a “no” button must be pushed, he said.

But no such question was asked of Mauri or Debernardis when they visited the Walnut Hill center, both men said.

Mary Wagner, director of voter registration with the State Board of Elections, said the problem lies not with the Motor Vehicle Administration, but rather with the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

The county board is “not processing the applications correctly,” Wagner alleged.

Jurgensen said the county board is following “to the letter” instructions for processing the applications, instructions that were provided to the county by Wagner’s office.

And state voter registration data show that the lion’s share of voter registration forms are submitted through the Motor Vehicle Administration, which both Debernardis and Mauri claim is the source of their problem.

As fingers point in various directions, Mauri called the excuses bull and said the problem only continues.

“We thought that we were exposing something to them that they didn’t know about,” he said.

When he learned that the board had known about other problems for almost two years, Mauri said he almost laughed.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Questioning how a similar error could happen to the county’s highest election official and not be fixed, Debernardis concluded that the registrations are “a problem nobody seems to be caring about.”

Prior to the June 24 election, the county elections board surveyed voters to detect potentially erroneous voter registration changes. Jurgensen estimated a “couple hundred” voters have been affected.

Provisional ballots cast by such voters — including Debernardis and Mauri — were counted in the primary.

kalexander@gazette.net