Editorial: Noncitizens registered to vote? Put California’s bungled ‘motor voter’ system on hold right away

A woman registers to vote and takes her driver's test using a touchscreen machine at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Santa Ana, Calif. on May 5, 2016.
A woman registers to vote and takes her driver’s test using a touchscreen machine at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Santa Ana, Calif. on May 5, 2016.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

California’s “motor voter” law, passed in 2015, was supposed to create a simpler, more secure way to register millions more voters in the state. When eligible adults go into a DMV office to get or renew a driver’s license or state ID, they are automatically registered to vote unless they opt out.

Well, the implementation has been neither simple nor secure. In fact, as the system’s increasingly serious foul-ups are being revealed, it’s providing fuel to Republicans who argue, wrongly, that voter fraud is a rampant problem necessitating tougher limits on voting rights.

First, the California Department of Motor Vehicles admitted in May that the motor voter system mistakenly generated duplicate registration forms for thousands of Californians who had visited the DMV. Then last month it disclosed that an “administrative processing error” had caused inaccurate registrations for about 23,000 people, including wrong party designations, phantom requests for mail-in ballots and even registrations for people who had opted not to be enrolled at all.


Either Padilla or Gov. Jerry Brown should suspend the automatic motor voter registrations until after the November election.

This week came the most disturbing news yet: The DMV revealed that about 1,500 people — including some noncitizens — were wrongly registered to vote between late April and late September because of DMV employee errors. The group potentially included people less than 18 years old, those not allowed to vote because of a criminal conviction and noncitizens living in the country legally.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla said his office cancelled the invalid registrations once he learned of the mistakes, but he didn’t know whether any of the wrongly registered voters cast ballots in the June primary. He should find out as soon as possible, then tell the public.

The earlier mistakes were annoying for voters and elections officials, but they didn’t undermine the integrity of the state’s voting system. But the latest revelation — that ineligible voters were mistakenly registered — is different, and raises serious questions about the reliability of the state’s motor voter program as it exists today.

The persistent and increasingly alarming errors undermine public confidence in California’s election system. Padilla has called for the DMV to add another layer of review before the agency forwards voter registration data to his office. But the state should go further. Either Padilla or Gov. Jerry Brown should suspend the automatic motor voter registrations until after the November election and until state officials are certain the system is functioning properly.

It wouldn’t be particularly difficult to pause the program. DMV officials said they could stop automatically transmitting voter information to the secretary of state and revert to the old paper-based registrations until they work out the kinks in the new electronic system, which launched in April. The delay would also give the state time to complete an audit that was launched last month amid complaints of hours-long wait times for licenses and repeated computer crashes, in addition to the botched motor voter rollout.


Yes, a temporary freeze on the motor voter program could harm a small number of eligible would-be voters who were relying on the DMV to register them for the November election. But those adults can still register to vote online by Oct. 22. (Meanwhile, Californians who’ve already registered through the DMV should check the secretary of state’s website to make sure their registration wasn’t botched.)

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The greater threat is to the integrity of the state’s voter rolls and public confidence in elections. President Trump has already tried to sow skepticism with his baseless assertion that millions of ballots were illegally cast for his opponent in the 2016 presidential election by noncitizens and other ineligible voters. (He won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by about 3 million, a drubbing that apparently still stings.)

In fact, it’s extremely rare for people to register to vote despite knowing they are ineligible to do so. A report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are “traceable to other sources,” such as “bad data-matching practices” and clerical errors — such as the ones involved in the bungled rollout of California’s motor voter system.

Although people living in the country illegally can obtain special drivers’ licenses through the DMV, the agency insists that none have been mistakenly registered to vote because its computer systems are designed prevent such improper registrations. But after so many mistakes, how can anyone have confidence in the DMV’s assurances? California’s leaders can’t wait for the next revelation. They should suspend motor voter registrations now.

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