Not only has the deeply dysfunctional California Department of Motor Vehicles failed in its basic responsibility to process applications for new or renewed driver’s licenses and state identification cards in a timely manner — resulting in wait times so long it prompted legislative hearings last month — but the agency just revealed that it has bungled the state’s new ”motor voter” program as well.
DMV Director Jean Shiomoto alerted the secretary of state to the situation in a letter on Sept. 5, saying that 23,000 people had been improperly registered to vote due to “an administrative processing error.” Some people who asked not to be registered were registered anyway. And some others who did want to register were given the wrong party designation or incorrect preferences, such as whether they wanted to receive vote-by-mail ballots and which language they wanted election materials printed in. The erroneous information was sent to the secretary of state’s office and added to the voter database.
This news would be troubling anytime, but with less than two months before the midterm elections — and just weeks before vote-by-mail ballots go out — it's particularly poor timing. Californians should be able to vote without worrying that the rolls are inaccurate. This particular goof is relatively minor and fixable, accounting for just a fraction of the 1.4 million people who have registered to vote at the DMV since the motor voter program went into effect. But it does make you wonder: What else might the DMV have messed up? What mistakes might it make in the future?
Elections officials say immigrants who are in the country illegally are definitely not being registered to vote. That’s because the DMV keeps citizens’ license applications completely separate from the applications from noncitizens for conditional licenses, preventing noncitizens’ data from being inadvertently sent to the elections headquarters. But how can anyone be sure of this in light of the DMV's other failures?
This would this be the perfect time to launch a thorough audit of the DMV, its processes and its 1980s-era technology. Too bad the Democrats who lead the state Legislature recently killed a Republican bill that asked the state auditor to examine the DMV. The auditor can’t initiate one on her own and the legislative session is over for the year, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. At the time, legislators said they didn’t need an audit to know what was wrong with the DMV.
Now it falls to Gov. Jerry Brown to seek accountability at the agency. He hasn’t said whether he will seek the resignation of Shiomoto or any other DMV officials, or whether he’s considering any other changes. But it would be entirely reasonable for him to change the agency’s leadership in light of the ongoing crisis in customer service (although wait times are down, they are still too long) and now the bungled voter registration. While the registration foul-ups appear to be minor, that they happened at all casts a shadow over the integrity of the state’s voter rolls — and hands voter-fraud conspiracists a boatload of ammunition for the next ginned-up commission to attack California’s elections.
No one should be pushing harder for accountability at the DMV for its handling of voter registration than Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the state’s top elections official. Fair or not, the public will blame him if there are problems with the voter rolls. Only three weeks ago, before the latest revelations came out, Padilla proclaimed his confidence in the DMV’s ability to process voter registrations. “I do believe we have safeguards and checks along the way to catch any errors or problems so we don’t end up with those problems materializing on the voter rolls,” he told the Los Angeles Times editorial board. The DMV played him for a chump.
Neither he nor any Californian has a reason to trust the agency — not until its management is called to account for its failures.