A lawsuit against the state of California and the county of Los Angeles over the accuracy of voter rolls has been settled, and it is a stunning victory for two nonprofit organizations, Election Integrity Project California and the government watchdog group, Judicial Watch.
Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan has agreed to remove 1.5 million “inactive” registrations from the voter rolls. Secretary of State Alex Padilla has agreed to inform all county election officials in California that current federal law requires the cancellation of inactive registrations. Both agreed to do more to identify registered voters who may have died in another county or state. And they agreed to make regular reports, every January, about their compliance with legal requirements to maintain accurate and current voter rolls.
That’s a big change from their previously held view that voter list maintenance was purely optional.
While elections are generally a state responsibility, federal law does get involved from time to time. In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act or NVRA, also known as the “motor voter” law, created more opportunities for people to register to vote and also added requirements intended to safeguard election integrity. States were required to maintain current and accurate voter rolls, while not canceling anyone’s registration for an improper reason or solely for failing to vote.
California was onboard with “motor voter,” but not so much with current and accurate voter rolls.
In late 2017, the Election Integrity Project California and Judicial Watch filed a federal lawsuit against L.A. County and the state for failing to comply with the law’s requirement that states must “conduct a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.”
According to the lawsuit, many California counties actually had more registered voters than residents eligible to vote. Statewide, the voter registration rate was 101 percent, and in L.A. County it was 112 percent.
As defendants in the suit, Padilla and Logan contended that federal law made the removal of inactive voters “permissive, not mandatory.” But then in June, the United States Supreme Court changed the landscape with its ruling in an Ohio case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute.
Ohio had been sued by U.S. Navy veteran Larry Harmon and civil rights groups over its procedure for removing inactive voters. This was the procedure: The state canceled the registration of anyone who didn’t vote in two consecutive federal elections, then didn’t respond to a mailed notice by returning a postcard and then didn’t vote in any election for the next four years.
“Not only are States allowed to remove registrants who satisfy these requirements, but federal law makes this removal mandatory,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.
Four justices disagreed with that conclusion, but it takes five to win.
And it is a major win for the Election Integrity Project California, a grassroots group that has worked for years to see that election officials and poll workers comply with the law, and that every lawful vote is accurately counted. Often the group’s requests for public records were ignored or turned away with a questionable response along the lines of, “Sorry, there are no records.”
Now, under the terms of the settlement, progress and compliance will be subject to enforcement by a federal judge. That should help.
With electronic voting equipment replacing older systems and foreign governments cyber-rattling the doors to voter data, it has never been more important to maintain the accuracy of the voter file. Then there are the errors made at the Department of Motor Vehicles, changing some voters’ party preference without their knowledge, or switching them to vote-by-mail without their consent.
Padilla now admits that he cannot say how many non-citizens, ineligible to vote in U.S. elections, voted in California after being registered to vote, in error, at the DMV.
California has gone beyond federal requirements in making voting more accessible, which is a good thing if there are safeguards to prevent fraud and error. But it’s increasingly clear that this isn’t the case.
For example, consider “ballot harvesting,” the practice of permitting any person, not just a close relative or household member, to collect and return the signed and sealed envelopes containing the ballots of willing voters.
Ballot harvesting was illegal in California until 2016, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1921. Two previous governors of different political parties, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both vetoed similar legislation. Schwarzenegger cited the need to prevent abuse of the system. Davis said it was “important to maintain the standard under current law that a person be ill or disabled to request that someone else submit” a voter’s ballot. Were they wrong?
At the DMV, the most basic, low-tech safeguard of simply asking people if they’d like to register to vote was enough to prevent errors — that is, until last spring when a new law was implemented. The DMV was required to automatically register any person making a transaction, unless they opted out or stated that they were ineligible. The result? Tens of thousands of registration errors and a meltdown that may have prevented hundreds of eligible voters from casting ballots.
Still more changes are coming. In 2020, local polling places will be replaced by vote centers where people will be able to register to vote on Election Day, change their address, switch their party preference, obtain a replacement ballot and, of course, vote. No ID or documentation will be required. Where are the safeguards against tampering or voter impersonation?
We have to do more. Call your county board of supervisors and ask what they’re doing to ensure election integrity and the protection of every lawful vote.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. Susan@SusanShelley.com. Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.
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