Glitches in California Embolden Automatic Voter Registration Foes

By: - October 17, 2019 12:00 am

People line up at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Los Angeles. Three Republican voters are suing state officials over its automatic voter registration system, which they say allowed noncitizens to register. Richard Vogel/The Associated Press

California’s rollout of automatic voter registration didn’t go as planned.

It seemed like a good idea: Cut the bureaucracy by adding voters automatically and welcome more residents to political participation. Since April 2018, when California residents go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to register a car or get a license, they are added to the state voter rolls — unless they opt out.

But DMV officials later found more than 100,000 registration errors in the first year, including some voters registered to the wrong party. And at least one noncitizen (state officials still are investigating how many in total) was accidentally signed up — a significant error since noncitizens aren’t allowed to vote.

Across the country, proponents of automatic voter registration often laud its ability to dramatically increase a state’s voter rolls, bringing more people into the political process. Since Oregon became the first state to pass automatic voter registration in 2015, 17 other states and the District of Columbia have followed with their own version of the policy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Among many states and different models, automatic voter registration has been shown to increase voter rolls, from an increase of nearly 10% in the District of Columbia to as much as 94% in Georgia, according to an April report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

But at a time when momentum around automatic voter registration is building, the latest struggles in California have emboldened critics who have long held that the system could allow noncitizens to vote, even as officials and experts point out that’s happened only a handful of times.

Republican state Sen. John Moorlach said he is not sure whether California’s registration mistakes could have changed the results of any election, but the past year has proved the state needs to make several improvements to its registration system “so we don’t make a mockery of the process.” He voted against enacting automatic voter registration in 2015.

“It seems to me if you’re voting and not a U.S. citizen, that’s a serious crime,” Moorlach said. “The irony is we’re making such a big deal in Russia’s supposed involvement in the 2016 election, and here we have actual abuse in voting and potential voter fraud and mismanagement of voter registration.”

Earlier this month, three Republican California voters, two of whom are naturalized citizens, sued Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla and DMV Director Steve Gordon over the errors, accusing them of “a pattern and practice of doing nothing to verify that a potential voter is a United States citizen, thus causing non-citizens to be placed on the voter rolls.”

The law firm representing the plaintiffs is run by the former vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party, Harmeet Dhillon.

The lawsuit calls on state officials to develop a better system to prevent future citizen-related errors. Mark Meuser, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said state agencies struggle to maintain databases and share information to keep voter rolls accurate.

“There’s a much bigger problem than noncitizens voting,” said Meuser, who lost a 2018 Republican bid for California secretary of state. “I’m much more concerned about the integrity of our system and people thinking their vote is diluted.”

Meuser said he thinks Californians are worried about a program that made 105,000 voter registration errors and allowed an unknown number of noncitizens to be added to the voter rolls. At least 1,500 people who are ineligible to vote were registered in the months following the April 2018 rollout, election officials said, six of whom voted in the midterm elections, according to a state review.

The California DMV would not comment to Stateline about any aspect of automatic voter registration because of pending litigation. Padilla’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to the lawsuit, Padilla told the Sacramento Bee at the time, “The plaintiffs claim they are protecting voters, but this is nothing more than an underhanded attempt to bring their voter suppression playbook to California.”

DMV officials have said they added safeguards and other protections to their processes to prevent future errors.

State Stopgaps

An independent audit — ordered in September 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and released in February 2019 — found that California’s registration program was “confusing to the public,” among other issues outlined in the 113-page report about the months after the error-laden rollout.

Automatic voter registration works, said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, but she stressed that states need to prevent avoidable mistakes.

Using tools ranging from public information campaigns to soft rollouts to further testing among county clerks and DMV workers, she said, states should be able to filter out noncitizens.

“Automatic voter registration has been shown to effectively increase registration in states big and small, blue and red, rural and urban, all across the country,” she said, citing Brennan Center research. “But like any policy, it needs to be designed strategically and smartly.”

Some states have taken extra precautions to prevent costly errors.

When Vermont began its new system in 2017, for example, officials prepared for potential problems with the thousands of noncitizens who work on the state’s dairy farms. Some 60,000 residents have gone to the DMV for driver privilege cards, a license available to anyone regardless of citizenship status.

The state had to make sure it was registering only citizens, said Will Senning, the state director of elections and campaign finance.

Vermont will register only DMV customers who both say they are citizens and don’t opt out of the registration, Senning said. The applications then go every night to town clerks, who approve them.

“It’s not truly automatic,” he said. “You still have a human element. Problems are not rampant.”

While designing this new process, Senning said, he was less concerned about noncitizens registering on purpose and more that they would register by accident and risk deportation. That’s why his office worked with immigration advocacy groups to share information across the state.

Since implementing the program, Senning said he has seen only a handful of instances where noncitizens were mistakenly registered, tracing them to data entry errors by DMV staff. Such errors, he said, are inevitable given the volume of applications and updates they process. He expects those errors will decrease as the state updates its registration technology.

“I believe I could count them on two hands,” he said. “Overall we have been very satisfied with the significantly low error rate.”

In Colorado, residents must indicate their country of citizenship to get their driver’s license. For noncitizens, such as green card holders, who qualify for state driver’s licenses, the computer system asks DMV customers twice whether they are U.S. citizens, said Melissa Polk, internal operations and legal manager at the Colorado Department of State. She said no noncitizen has been registered to vote under the new system.

The state has streamlined data between the DMV and the secretary of state’s office, and it will expand automatic voter registration in the coming years, Polk said, registering Coloradans who interact with state agencies beyond the DMV, like the state’s Medicaid program.

Republican state Sen. Owen Hill in April voted against the measure that expands the state’s automatic voter registration program to other state services. Keeping noncitizens off voter rolls in Colorado, he said, is a legitimate concern.

“In order to keep people’s trust in democratic institutions, I think we have to go above and beyond,” he said. “Automatic voter registration creates concerns with the overall integrity of the system.”

But the safeguards might not be enough for critics.

Looming Concerns

Simply asking DMV customers whether they are citizens isn’t sufficient, said Logan Churchwell, communications and research director at the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative organization in Indianapolis led by lawyers who have worked on election law cases. The group has long opposed automatic voter registration.

While some states offer residents an option to opt out of their voter registrations on forms at the DMV or on postcards sent to homes, Churchwell fears that an immigrant, new to this country and without enough English proficiency, might mistakenly ignore the reminders and remain on voter rolls.

“Automation cranks errors into the system,” Churchwell said. “It is not designed to worry if the person is a citizen. The reality is, noncitizens are the victims.”

In rare instances, noncitizens who have registered to vote and later cast a ballot have been deported. Such was the case in 2017, when a Peruvian immigrant was deported after voting twice in Illinois illegally as a legal permanent resident. She said she was misled by DMV workers to register to vote. When she applied for citizenship, government officials discovered her voting history and returned her to Peru.

It’s outrageous to say that Churchwell and his colleagues are concerned about noncitizens, said Pérez at the Brennan Center. The group received heavy criticism for putting out a 2016 report, “Alien Invasion,” with a flying saucer on the cover. It also printed home addresses of Virginians mistakenly labeled as noncitizens who registered to vote. The individuals were all citizens; they sued the group for defamation last year.

The group’s president, J. Christian Adams, who sat on President Donald Trump’s now-disbanded voter fraud commission, apologized to the affected voters as part of a settlement agreement.

But these concerns over citizenship have led some Republican-led state legislatures to attempt to require proof of citizenship to register to vote. Some of these efforts were inspired by Trump’s unsupported claim that millions of noncitizens may have voted during the 2016 presidential election.

Earlier this year, Texas ended a botched review of its voting records that questioned the citizenship status of 100,000 registered voters. State Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, said during the review that noncitizens were voting in Texas elections. Many of the voters in question were naturalized citizens.

Even still, states continue to adopt automatic voter registration.

In the past year, the New Mexico and Maine legislatures enacted automatic voter registration, while Michigan implemented its program. Ohio Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose earlier this year called on lawmakers to embrace a similar “opt-out” voter registration system.

As more states adopt this program, they must ensure there are protections for noncitizens, Pérez said.

“It can be done in a way that makes it easier for people who are noncitizens to opt out,” she said. “We need to make sure that noncitizens are acutely aware what the rules are for voting, where they might be asked about voting and how they should say no.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.