CA120: DMV voter registrations hit slow lane

The DMV office in Los Gatos. (Photo: stellamc, via Shutterstock)

The coronavirus pandemic has had clear impacts on our elections, with California launching a first-time system in which every voter will be mailed a ballot for November, both major political parties scrapping their traditional big summer conventions (replaced by what sounds like massively boring online affairs), and a halt to campaign rallies, fundraisers and local coffees. The staple of most campaigns — precinct walking — has been almost universally halted.

We even have, as of this week, an explicit call from the president to delay the Nov. 3 general election – something that will Not. Ever. Happen.

California, with its already large vote-by-mail population, is uniquely prepared to meet this challenge, but there are some ways in which we are still seeing an impact, including a dramatic drop in voter registration, as FiveThirtyEight has recently reported. The story highlights dozens of states with dwindling registration during the period before a presidential contest that is most commonly associated with large voter registration drives.

Digging into it, we can see that California has been experiencing at least one area with a lull in registration.  Looking at the voter file and codes from the secretary of state’s registration methods, we see hundreds of thousands fewer registrations via the Department of Motor Vehicles than expected since the lock down began.

As the following chart shows, DMV registrations this year were coming in at nearly 6,000-to-8,000 per day, then plummeted after mid-March when many DMV offices began shutting down.

2020 voter registrations, January through June.


Compared to 2019, we can see that these early months of 2020 were actually ahead of the 2019 rate, potentially because fewer people were opting-out of registering or re-registering during this period immediately before the presidential primary election.


2020 registrations (blue) compared with 2019 registrations (orange). 


This data shows that registration was actually poised to record highs from the DMV, until the pandemic struck.

Since that mid-March period we have been averaging about 3,000 fewer registrations at the DMV per day compared to 2019, and nearly 5,000 fewer a day compared to the first months of 2020.  This comes out to a total impact of more than 300,000 and up to 500,000, depending on where you set the baseline.

And as DMV offices continue to have limited in-person services, this impact is growing.

But we are also seeing increases in online registration, and significant other automatic features of the state’s new voter registration system.

In this way, the challenges in California, again, do not appear as bleak as in other states, many of which still rely on in-person or traditional paper registration forms.

Since the beginning of this year through June 30, California saw approximately 3.5 million registrations.  Approximately 1.2 million of those were new voters with no prior vote history, while the remainder were re-registrations.  This is more than the 2.5 million we saw in the same period in 2016, and much more than the 1.6 million during the same period in 2018.

Online registration, in particular, has been seeing a massive increase. In 2019, during the first half of the year, we only saw around 60,000 online registrations. This year we have seen over 700,000, with the rate of registration online increasing as we get closer to the election.

The re-registration numbers have also been bolstered by a new “National Change of Address” process in which the secretary of state is empowered to direct counties to update voter registrations when voters move.  This NCOA process has accounted for more than 200,000 updated registrations for the first half of the year, with 40% of those being re-registrations among voters under the age of 35.

For those concerned about voters receiving by-mail ballots at the right address, this constant cleanup of voter registrations should provide considerable solace.

And while we are likely seeing a COVID-related slump in national rates of registration, it is likely that the multiple avenues for Californians to register or update their voter registration will reduce this pandemic-related dip in voter registration.

The state is on course to reach 21 million voters – a state and national record. The connection to the state’s online registration, begun in 2012, and the advancement of the DMV and related pathways for registration have undeniably protected voters in California who could have been disenfranchised right before this critical election.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a redistricting consulting firm.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: