Election: Voter registration at DMV churns up big numbers, big questions


Get a drivers license. Register to vote.

Thats how Californias new Motor Voter law is supposed to work. And, for most, the law that automatically registers voters has worked just fine.

But there have been glitches; more than 100,000 of them, including the Department of Motor Vehicles registering some people who arent eligible to vote. Thats led Secretary of State Alex Padilla to call for an independent audit of the DMV and for other critics to question the integrity of a process that is adding hundreds of thousands of people to the voting rolls, potentially changing the face of Californias electorate.

None of this was intended three years ago when the state approved rules that set up virtually automatic voter registration whenever residents applied for a new drivers license. As those rules kicked in for the 2018 election cycle, many believed Californias version of motor voter registration would boost voter participation.

For the moment, however, the emphasis seems to be on fixing a glitchy system.

A spokesman from Padillas office said Friday that the spate of incorrect registrations has led to a temporary halt of information transmitted from the DMV to the Secretary of State and county election offices, and that new reviews of the process were put in place last week.

The largest number of errors, about 77,000, involved duplicate registration forms. Other mistakes resulted in changes to voters political party preferences and vote-by-mail options, according to the DMV.

A small number of errors led to the registration of minors and felons who are not allowed to vote. Also, some non-citizens were inadvertently registered, including a Newport Beach green-card visa holder from Canada who didnt even realize he was registered to vote until he got a notice in the mail.

The DMV — which has alerted the state of the mistakes and has notified registrars of the problems — has continued taking voter registrations, but for a period of time this month stopped transmitting those records to the Secretary of State. Registrations from Oct. 11 though Oct. 13, after undergoing further review, were scheduled to arrive at the Secretary of State Office on Friday, Oct. 19, Press Secretary Sam Mahood wrote in an e-mail. Registrations from subsequent dates are expected to come in as soon as next week.

Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley, whose office hadnt seen any new registrations or renewals made through the DMV since Oct. 11, said he applauds the agencys “time-out.”

“This is critical because we need to make sure the data coming to us from the state is accurate,” Kelley said late Friday.

Still, he said hes a bit uneasy about the onslaught of registrations his office may get in the weeks before the midterms.

“I have 50 plus operators standing by,” Kelley said.

Big numbers and their impact[hhmc]

What is known is that a lot of people have been registered to vote this year at the DMV.

From April through September, the DMV registered some 1.9 million people, including 582,410 new voters. Even in a state with 19.1 million registered voters, and pool of nearly 25.2 million people who are eligible to register, those numbers could affect elections.

“It is, in raw numbers, the largest surge of registrations in a gubernatorial election cycle,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.

But Mitchell, like other voting experts, believes its far from certain how that surge will play out at the polls.

For one thing, he noted the DMV push is heavy on “re-registrations,” a group that includes previously active voters. A huge surge in re-registrations wont necessarily boost turnout or change the makeup of the electorate.

“(Re-registrations) could lessen the impact of this surge,” Mitchell said.

Campaigns, however, are being affected.

New registrations and re-registrations in Orange County have outpaced the rest of the state, Mitchell said. Some of the biggest spikes can be seen in competitive House districts like the 39th, which pits Republican Young Kim against Democrat Gil Cisneros, and the 45th, where Democrat Katie Porter is challenging Republican Mimi Walters.

Many of the new voters are independent and, Mitchell said, they “will definitely impact” how the campaigns have to be run.

“They add volatility to an election if there are a bunch of new voters late in the game.”

Another factor making it tough to say how the new registration surge will play out is the process by which the DMV is signing up voters.

Its an opt-out system, meaning if you dont say no at the DMV, youll be registered. Experts arent sure if people who were registered in such a passive way will become active voters on Election Day.

Many of those voters may be coming from disadvantaged communities and are not engaged in the political process, said Eric McGhee, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California who has written on the subject.

Cal State Long Beach Associate Professor Kevin Wallsten, who studies elections and political behavior, said registration, historically, has been one of the main obstacles to voting. Once registered, he said, most people vote. In California, that has been as high as 75 percent of the registered voters during a presidential election, he noted.

Overall, if only because of raw numbers, the vote total probably will increase but because so many of the new registrations are low-propensity voters the percentage of voters is likely to decline, Wallsten said.

But the goal of the new Motor Voter law in California went beyond merely adding more people to the voter rolls. Another goal was to have the states voters look more like the states actual population, which is increasingly Latino, Wallsten said.

“The hope is to get more Latino voters; to change the composition of the electorate.”

Motor Voter laws across the country[hhmc]

Some form of automatic voter registration has been approved in 13 states and Washington D.C., according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School. Not all have yet implemented it, though.

And the movement is growing. This year, 28 more states are considering legislation to implement or expand automatic voter registrations, according to the Brennan Center.

Oregon was the first state to pass a law in March 2015. The state has the most aggressive form of automatic voter registration, McGhee said. In Oregon, “you are defaulted into registration.”

California was the second state to adopt a law in October 2015, but it didnt get implemented until this year.

Automatic registrations are not the only changes looking to create more voters. Sixteen states, including California, preregister young people as future voters before they turn 18, according to the Brennan Center. This year, following a mass shooting in Florida and youth marches across the country that followed, California reported that as many as 100,000 people ages 16 and 17 had pre-registered to vote.

While some states are seeking to expand voting access, others seek to limit it.

Voter ID laws, for example, are often seen as posing a barrier to the ballot box. Across the country, 34 states have laws that require some form of identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California has had voter registration available through the DMV for years, but the new law, making it automatic, was adopted in 2015. It took this long to take effect because there were many concerns surrounding its implementation, McGhee said.

“The DMV was concerned they couldnt make the technical changes,” McGhee said.

Even before the recent glitches at the DMV, some — including President Donald Trump — have questioned the integrity of Californias registration system.

R.J. Davis, a Monterey County resident, has long suspected voter registration in California is rife with fraud. To test his suspicions, he registered his dog. He did it two more times with two other dogs over the years, the last time in 2013. Each time, he wanted to see if his voter registration officials would catch it. They didnt.

“If the first time was a fluke, why didnt they catch it the next time?” Davis said. “This system has been broken for a long time.”

But it should be noted that registration is only part of the voting process. When it comes to counting eligible votes, and voters, fraud is a statistical non-factor. Numerous studies looking at voter fraud have found it almost never happens.

The big problem from the current DMV mistakes, according to some experts, will be perception.

“The most recent debacle is going to confirm all the worst expectations,” said Wallsten, the Cal State Long Beach professor.

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