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California will investigate whether DMV voter registration errors changed election results

Piles of mail-in ballots are readied to be counted at the Orange County Registrar of Voters on Wedne
Mail-in ballots are readied to be counted at the Orange County Registrar of Voters on Nov. 7, 2018 in Santa Ana. State officials are now reviewing whether some ballots weren’t counted due to a voter registration error at DMV offices.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

Faced with evidence that some voter registration forms weren’t properly filed by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, state officials will now investigate whether any votes were wrongly rejected and whether the final results in any state or local races should be reconsidered.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla and leaders of the agency that oversees the DMV agreed on Monday to settle a federal lawsuit brought by advocacy groups including the League of Women Voters of California and the American Civil Liberties Union. The settlement, in part, states that Padilla’s office will “take steps to ensure that every vote is counted” if ballots were rejected and will provide “guidance to elections officials in the relevant jurisdiction(s) on how to count the affected ballots and, if appropriate, recertify election results.”

On Dec. 14, DMV officials revealed that staff members had not transmitted voter registration files for 589 people whose applications or updated applications were filled out before the close of registration for the Nov. 6 statewide election. At the time, state officials could not confirm whether any of those voters had been turned away on election day, or if any had cast last-minute provisional ballots that were rejected in the final tally.

Monday’s settlement raises the possibility that a full investigation of the delayed voter registration documents could reveal races in which the outcome might have changed had those voters been allowed to participate. State officials now have 60 days to complete an investigation into the identity of those voters and why DMV staff members failed to transmit the files in a timely fashion.

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The error was the latest in a series of mishaps revealed in the first six months of operation for California’s new automated “motor voter” program, under which DMV customers are registered to vote unless they decline.

“I am committed to working with new leadership at DMV and the new administration to ensure integrity of the motor voter program and accuracy of the data,” Padilla said in a written statement on Monday night. “This settlement continues to move those efforts forward.”

Padilla’s office said on Tuesday that a preliminary investigation had not found any instances in which voter registration delays would have changed the outcome of a race.

The deadline to register for November’s election was Oct. 22. The records in question either came in before that deadline, or included documents signed and dated before that date. A Dec. 14 letter to Padilla from Jean Shiomoto, who was then DMV director, said the registration records weren’t submitted “due to a misunderstanding on the part of the department, for which we take responsibility.”

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California’s DMV director announces retirement amid problems with ‘motor voter’ program »

Shiomoto retired from state government at the end of 2018. Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to appoint a new permanent director.

“We continue to actively work with our stakeholders to ensure full transparency for the California motor voter program,” Melissa Figueroa, deputy secretary for communications at the California State Transportation Agency, said in a written statement on Monday. “As an agency, we are committed to getting this right.”

The settlement, filed Monday in a San Francisco federal court, said that DMV staffers failed to transmit voter registration documents in a timely fashion beginning Oct. 12 and that all documents were held back for the three weeks following election day.

Several other problems were reported just days after state officials launched the DMV’s automated voter registration system in late April. Those included multiple registration forms sent to counties for the same voter, flawed registrations for 23,000 DMV customers and a limited number of non-U.S. citizens — permanent green-card residents — mistakenly added to the voter rolls.

The agreement to investigate why DMV officials didn’t promptly submit hundreds of voter registration forms “establishes concrete steps that California will take to investigate and improve the DMV voter registration system,” said Melissa Breach, executive director of the League of Women Voters of California.

john.myers@latimes.com

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