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California’s voter registration errors draw close look

A Department of Motor Vehicles building in Los Gatos. (Photo: Stellamc, via Shutterstock)

Errors in the new California Motor Voter registration system may undermine the credibility of elections, some worry.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles announced early in September that it sent 23,000 voter registrations with errors to the secretary of state. This included mistakes in political party selections, vote-by-mail options and 3,000 registrations from people who had opted not to be registered.

As of May, California had 6.1 million people who are eligible to vote but have not registered, according to the secretary of state’s statistics.

Mark Meuser, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, who oversees elections, said the errors make ordinary Californians mistrustful.

“It causes them to be concerned about the integrity of the election process,” he said. “If you make small mistakes like that, does my voter really matter?”

The Election Integrity Project California, a nonpartisan election oversight group, said it is unacceptable that technological problems are plaguing the system, especially in a state that is the birthplace for cutting-edge technology. “Californians deserve to have all voter registrations projected, and all elections conducted with the utmost integrity,” said Linda Paine, the group’s president.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, expressed disappointment and frustration about the errors in a statement. “The DMV has assured us that they have taken necessary actions to prevent this from occurring again,” he said.

The California Motor Voter program was approved in 2015 to make registering to vote more convenient. As of May, California had 6.1 million people who are eligible to vote but have not registered, according to the secretary of state’s statistics.

DMV voter registrations had included an unusually high number of people selecting “no party preference”—46 percent, or 414,587 out of 898,724 total registrations so far this year.

Under Motor Voter, all eligible voters are automatically registered to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses, unless they opt out. They are also given the chance to select a political party, choose whether to vote by mail and select a language for election materials.

The mistakes were caused when DMV staffers had more than one customer record open on their computer screens and inadvertently merged the records, said DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez. Those affected were sent letters urging them to check their voter registration status on the secretary of state’s website.

Gonzalez said that none of the affected customers were undocumented immigrants. During debate over Motor Voter, some expressed concern that undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses would accidentally be registered to vote.

Political scene observers had noticed that DMV voter registrations had included an unusually high number of people selecting “no party preference”—46 percent, or 414,587 out of 898,724 total registrations so far this year. In previous years that number had been 30 percent. But as a recent survey by Political Data, Inc. found, much of this change may not be intentional.

The firm surveyed 1,200 voters who had their registration updated at the DMV and found that 31 percent of those who selected “no party preference” thought they had actually registered as Democratic or Republican. When informed what happened, only 79 percent said it was their intention to register “no party preference.”

Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., believes the confusion may have come from the slightly different DMV registration form. “It asks people if they want to register with a political party or select a political party,” he said in an email. “And if they say they want to select a political party they can. But my guess is that the extra little step has more people saying ‘[O]h, I don’t need to join a party’ and they select that. Or they are kinda just rushing to get out of the DMV and select that.”

He believes the impact on the upcoming election will be minimal. “We are going to see record-high registrations, but a huge chunk of those are voters … were already registered, and didn’t really need to be re-registered,” he said. “Then there will be some people registering who have no intention on actually voting.”
Meuser said it was a mistake to give voter registration responsibilities to the DMV. “Here in California, our DMV is one of the worst in the nation,” he said. “They can’t handle even the problems they have. Now they’re in charge of the process. You’re giving people who can’t even do their own job more responsibilities.”

He faults Padilla for rushing through the process without double-checking that people were properly trained.

The DMV has put in place additional safeguards such as software updates and staff training to prevent future errors, Gonzalez said. “That updated system has been thoroughly tested, and no additional errors have been found.”

 


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