The California Department of Motor Vehicles’ acknowledgement this week that it botched 23,000 voter registrations is raising new questions about whether it can be trusted to register voters at a time when election integrity is under renewed scrutiny nationwide.
The DMV said the errors are being corrected and that new safeguards — put in place after the mistakes surfaced — seem to be working. But the registration mistakes come at a time when the DMV is already under fire over massive backlogs in processing new federally compliant IDs, known as Real IDs.
“Waiting in line is one thing, but having your voter registration tampered with without your knowledge or consent is a very disturbing development,” Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, said Thursday. “This touches on the very security and honestly the sacredness of a person’s registration and votes. This calls into question the ability of the DMV to manage voter registration.”
The mistakes included changes in party affiliation, vote-by-mail options and language preference. In some cases, voters who didn’t complete a registration form were registered anyway. The DMV said none of the cases involved non-citizens ineligible to vote.
Voters nationwide have been allowed to register at motor vehicle departments since the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, known as the “motor voter” law. Eligible voters are registered automatically when they apply for or renew a driver’s license or identification card with the DMV unless they choose to “opt out.”
The DMV acknowledged in a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Alex Padilla that “administrative processing” errors had affected motor voter data sent to his office. The DMV said it found about 23,000 errors in 1.4 million records sent to the secretary of state’s office between April 23 and Aug. 5.
“As California’s chief elections officer, I am extremely disappointed and deeply frustrated that DMV’s administrative error caused inaccurate voter registration data to be transmitted to elections officials,” Padilla said in a statement. “The DMV has assured us that they have taken necessary actions to prevent this from occurring again.”
The DMV said the errors were caused when staff technicians had more than one person’s record open on their computer screens at the same time. Somehow, the agency said, those records “were inadvertently merged.”
The DMV could not say how many of the resulting errors involved party preference, vote-by-mail options or language choice. But some 1,600 of the 23,000 affected motorists were improperly registered even though they did not complete a required affidavit.
The DMV said the secretary of state’s office is canceling those erroneous registrations, and that the two agencies are working to correct the other mistakes. Affected voters are being notified to ensure their records are correct. Padilla added that residents can check their registration status at voterstatus.sos.ca.gov, and register at registertovote.ca.gov.
The DMV said it has made changes, including software updates and staff training, and no voter registration problems have been reported since.
“We are committed to getting this right and are working closely with the secretary of state’s office to correct the errors that occurred,” DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said in a statement.
It’s not the first time California’s DMV has faced questions about the integrity of its voter registration. After a state law, AB 60, which took effect in 2015, allowed the DMV to issue driver licenses to non-citizens who are not eligible to vote in most elections, critics suggested it could create an avenue to register ineligible voters.
President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that “millions of people” have voted illegally in California. But a commission his administration set up to look into voter fraud was eventually disbanded without turning up any evidence of widespread illegal voting. The DMV has issued more than 1 million licenses to non-citizens under the AB 60 law and insists it has procedures in place to prevent non-citizens from being registered to vote.
Still, critics like Patterson, whose call for a DMV audit over the Real ID snafu was shut down by the Legislature’s Democrats, aren’t convinced that voter registration problems at the DMV don’t run deeper.
“I think it’s tip of the iceberg,” Patterson said. “If you talk to folks inside the DMV, they tell you this motor voter thing is just a horror. They’ve tried repeatedly to get the attention of the director, and I think this has political ramifications.”
The DMV said the errors occurred statewide but it did not provide a breakdown by county. The secretary of state’s office said it is still analyzing the data.
Patterson said that because most constituents in his district are fellow Republicans, constituents told him about being changed from Republican to no party preference or Democrat. Constituents, he said, noticed the problem after receiving campaign mail that seemed intended for a more liberal voter.
It “changes the dynamic” of how those voters receive election material, he said.
The registration glitches come amid heightened concern over election integrity with looming November mid-terms in which several California congressional races could decide whether Democrats take control of the House of Representatives.
Before the June primary, mistakes by county election officials caused thousands of voters headaches but are not believed to have kept them from casting ballots. A printing error caused more than 118,000 Los Angeles County voters to be left off the list poll workers use to check in voters. And there were sporadic cases in Santa Clara and other counties of voter registrations being mistakenly canceled as part of a statewide effort to eliminate duplicate records.
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