Ken Ebert moved back to Massachusetts, and his native Methuen, in 2010 and among the list of personal documents he had to change was his driver’s license.
He converted his license at the Lawrence Registry office, according to the RMV. At the same time, Ebert said he checked the so-called “motor voter” option, meaning he chose to register to vote at the RMV while converting his license.
But when he showed up at his polling place at the Timony Grammar School Nov. 6 to vote in the presidential election, workers there could not find him on the roll. One of the workers told him there sometimes are errors when registering to vote with the RMV. Local city and town clerks also said that some voters are confused about address changes at the Registry, assuming changing a driver’s license automatically changes voter information.
“I went to register when I went to get my license changed over, and there was a box to register to vote,” Ebert, 39, said. “That seemed pretty official. It’s the RMV.”
Christine Touma-Conway, the Methuen City Clerk, said sometimes there is a “glitch” in getting the information from the RMV to localities about voter changes and information. However, oftentimes people think they registered to vote but actually did not.
“Often, probably more often than (the RMV) didn’t get information to us, (people) checked no on their applications,” she said.
“I would say usually a third or so will end up being registered,” she said. “We do actually get copies. (The RMV) give us a verbal answer, then they give us a copy the actual application.”
In Ebert’s case, “we verified that an error occurred within the Lawrence branch and Mr. Ebert was not properly registered to vote,” said Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees the RMV.
Poll workers are trained to offer people in Ebert’s situation a provisional ballot, where the resident can still vote providing voter until residential questions are cleared up, Touma-Conway said. Provisional ballots are kept separate until verification is complete, and if everything checks out, the ballot counts. If not, it is destroyed.
However, Ebert said he was never offered a provisional ballot, and was sent away from the poll.
Touma-Conway said her poll workers are trained beforehand in how to deal with this type of situation. “My wardens are trained to go through a series of questions to determine whether or not to offer a provisional ballot,” she said. “They are trained to offer a ballot if someone genuinely thinks they registered and they’re not on the list.”
“But that he wasn’t given a ballot, I’m not going to say that didn’t happen,” she continued. “In the middle of 20,000 voters, I can’t say something like that wouldn’t happen.” But she said it was very unlikely.
Many voters also assume that changing their address with the Registry after they move will make the changes with their local elections officials, clerks said. However, voters have to go to the City or Town Clerk in their new municipality when they move to change their address on the voter roll.
“When you’re at the Registry and you’re changing your address, moving from Andover to North Andover, they ask if you want to register to vote,” said Joyce Bradshaw, Town Clerk in North Andover. “Most people will say, ‘I’m already registered,’ not realizing it doesn’t transfer with you. People will have an assumption that their voting information has changed.”
In Haverhill, City Clerk Margaret Toomey said nearly 130 of the 376 provisional ballots filled out in that city on Election Day were provisional ballots given out because of RMV-related issues.
“The basic thing is it looks like 40 percent of people who voted provisionally indicated they believed they had registered at the Registry,” she said.
Touma-Conway said her office had 37 provisional ballots to check, 24 of which were RMV-related. Bradshaw said her office had 40 provisional ballots, but only four or five were filled out by voters who said they had gone to the Registry.
In Andover, Town Clerk Lawrence Murphy said his office checked 15 provisional ballots, and seven of those were RMV-related. Lawrence City Clerk William Maloney said his office had 314 provisional ballots to review, 72 of which were RMV-related.
“Following elections, the RMV Division is asked by the Secretary of State’s office to research certain voter registration cases,” Lavoie said. “We are asked to verify if the person did register to vote, did not register to vote, or if the Registry made an error in processing the voter application. This election we researched approximately 2,000 cases. In the 2008 Presidential election that number was 5,000. In this year’s Presidential Primary we researched less than 100 cases.”
Clerks had until Friday Nov. 9 to submit ballots to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office for review.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as the Motor Voter law, required states to offer residents the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.
Residents have until several weeks before an election to register. The deadline for last month’s election was Oct. 17, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, which oversees elections. Residents with any questions about their voter status should contact their city or town clerk.
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