Orange County Register: The DMV should not automatically register voters

By Patricia Bates
Sunday, December 29, 2019

Published by the Orange County Register on December 29, 2019.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is already dealing with many problems. The last thing that it should be worrying about is whether it is accurately registering people to vote.

“Motor Voter” is a federal law dating back to 1993 that mandates states make voter registration opportunities available at DMV offices. California has successfully provided such opportunities for years.

The recent problems with California’s Motor Voter program stem from the Legislature’s 2015 mandate that the opportunity to register at the DMV change from an “opt-in” process to an “opt-out” one. This means the DMV must automatically register citizens to vote when they obtain or renew driver’s licenses or identification cards. Supporters of the change knew the DMV was already struggling to meet federal deadlines for fully implementing the REAL ID program, yet they disregarded warnings.

Numerous progressive groups opposed the 2015 legislation that mandated automatic voter registration. They were concerned that the DMV would automatically register undocumented immigrants to vote, putting them at risk of criminal penalties and deportation.

Many errors have surfaced publicly, but how many more have not? These errors are putting people at risk of violating election laws. Worse, the growing litany of problems is eroding the public’s trust in a fair elections process.

In May 2018, a software error affected 77,000 voter registrations, which in some cases resulted in two registration forms for a single voter.

Four months later, we learned that the DMV transmitted 23,000 erroneous voter registrations to the California Secretary of State’s Office. Some were people registered with the wrong party; others had opted-out of registering but the DMV added them anyway.

The public learned in October 2018 that the DMV mistakenly registered 1,500 ineligible residents, including noncitizens. A Canadian citizen who lives in California received a notice stating he was newly registered to vote; he contacted a media outlet to let it know about the problem. It turned out he had tried to get a replacement driver’s license at a DMV field office and ended up receiving a voter registration notice in the mail. The Canadian was honest and exposed the problem instead of keeping quiet and voting.

In August 2019, a state-conducted audit found that in just the first five months of the new version of Motor Voter, the DMV produced over 84,000 duplicate records and more than twice that number with political party mistakes.

At this point, I urged the secretary of state to suspend automatic voter registration, but the request was ignored. The errors have continued.

A few weeks ago, we learned that over 600 people in multiple counties have had their party registration “switched” after going into the DMV to conduct business. In fact, it happened to the daughter of Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove. She went to a DMV office to update her address; she soon received a postcard notifying her party registration was “No Party Preference” even though she registered as a Republican. This has happened to Democrats as well.

These are examples of why I introduced Senate Bill 57. My bill would return registration at the DMV to an “opt-in” process to give citizens more control over their own voter registrations and increase trust in California’s election system. If people tell you that fixing Motor Voter is “scrapping” it or code for “voter suppression,” they are not telling the truth. The truth is, my bill allows every eligible Californian to register to vote if they so desire. The Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee will hear SB57 on Jan 7. Passing my bill would help prevent additional problems at the DMV.