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Who's responsible for DMV's voter registration problems? Lawmakers want answers

Who's responsible for DMV's voter registration problems? Lawmakers want answers
A man passes a California Department of Motor Vehicles office in the Arleta neighborhood of Los Angeles Tuesday, April 9. (Richard Vogel / AP)

California lawmakers from both major parties pushed Tuesday for a closer look at technology and security mishaps in last year’s launch of the state’s new voter registration system at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We have to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible,” Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) said. “We can’t tolerate mismanagement and poor leadership.”

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The demands for new scrutiny came in response to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times which found a number of problems — from computer programming errors to an attempted hacking attempt last year, traced to servers in Croatia.

Some who worked on the high-profile “motor voter” project said they felt pressure to turn on the system in time for the June 2018 statewide primary. The completion date for the effort was moved up by three months, a fateful decision that left less time for testing the equipment and training DMV employees.

Department officials said Tuesday that they continue to work on improving the program to prevent additional errors in creating voter records, similar to the upwards of 100,000 inaccurate documents generated when the system launched last year.

“At DMV, we take the ‘motor voter’ program very seriously,” Kathleen Webb, the department’s acting director, said a legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento. “There’s been great progress.”

Three state organizations — DMV, the California Department of Technology and the office of Secretary of State Alex Padilla — all participated in the development of the “motor voter” system prior to its official launch in late April 2018. The exact organization of the team that produced the project, however, wasn’t entirely obvious to those involved. Department of Technology officials said during the course of The Times’ investigation that the Department of Motor Vehicles had the final say, though key programs were built by CDT engineers.

“There was no clear leadership structure and no clear project management framework,” said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach). “You’ve got to have a clear project plan going in.”

Lawmakers have focused much of their attention in recent weeks on other problems with the Department of Motor Vehicles, none more pressing than the long wait times that plagued the agency through last summer and continue to be a frustration to those who visit local DMV offices. Last month, a state audit concluded implementation of Real ID — the federal law requiring additional security before issuing driver licenses — was a key factor in the delays experienced by DMV customers. The rollout of the voter registration system, in documents reviewed by The Times, may have been impacted by the persistent problems with Real ID.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the author of the 2015 law that created the automated voter registration system, said she’s looking forward to the results of an audit sanctioned by the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom. That audit is looking specifically at the new “motor voter” effort and its final results are expected later this spring.

“The New Motor Voter program is increasing voter access every day, but clearly it has been — and continues to be — threatened by administrative mismanagement, technology failures and attempted foreign interference,” she said in a written statement.”

Other lawmakers, though, believe the independent state auditor should investigate reports of major errors and the possibility that hackers in Croatia attacked the system less than two weeks before it was turned live.

“The system is even more vulnerable than I thought,” Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said after reading the results of the review by The Times. “I’m hoping that the Legislature will take seriously an independent audit. It takes all the politics out of it.”

Fong, who has been a persistent critic of the Department of Technology, called for the resignation of Amy Tong, the state’s chief information officer. He said the voter registration system’s problems are not an isolated case across state government.

“There are clear structural reforms that have to happen,” Fong said. “Otherwise, I think the questions will mount.”

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