California's Botched Motor-Voter Rollout Hovers Over 2020

California's Botched Motor-Voter Rollout Hovers Over 2020
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
California's Botched Motor-Voter Rollout Hovers Over 2020
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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News of 2016 Russian hacking in Florida’s election system exploded in the headlines earlier this week, and fears that Kremlin agents or other foreign meddlers could do more of the same in 2020 has been a leading theme in news cycles for the last two years.

But a major foreign cyberattack on California’s new automated voter registration system during its glitch-filled rollout last spring flew mostly under the national media’s radar. 

The California case is particularly vexing from election-integrity and voter-privacy perspectives because the hack targeted the motor-voter registration system just six days before its scheduled launch.

The state has had a motor-voter system up and running for years, but a new law required the Department of Motor Vehicles to electronically transmit information on drivers who are eligible to vote and who visit the Golden State’s DMV offices to the state’s voter rolls, unless they opt out.

Among the concerns surfacing now is that state officials never publicly acknowledged the hacking until California media reported on it last month. And there are lingering questions — and serious doubts — over whether the system’s numerous glitches have been fixed in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential primary and general election.

California officials moved up the state’s primary from June to March to boost its role in determining who wins the Democratic nomination for president, making it even more critical to ensure the integrity of voter registrations, election watchdogs argue.

After learning of the hack, California’s Democratic leaders, who wanted the system up and running as quickly as possible last year, delayed the late April 2018 rollout, but just by one week. The officials were already pressuring system developers to make it operational ahead of the 2018 primary to ensure the maximum number of voters would be registered and could participate in that critical midterm election, an extensive Los Angeles Times investigation found.

“If these same errors were happening in Florida and Ohio, it would be a completely different story. It would be front-page news in every paper across America” because of those states’ pivotal roles in deciding presidential elections, Logan Churchwell, the spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm formed to bolster election integrity, told RealClearPolitics.  

Churchwell argues that problems with automated motor-voter registration began when state election officials gave the DMV – a government bureaucracy notorious for customer service complaints and inefficiencies -- responsibility for implementing these systems.

“These peoples’ jobs have nothing to do with thinking about voter integrity, and every mistake that gets made is not their problem, it’s the secretary of state’s problems,” he said.

‘Croatia Translates to Hacker Heaven’

During the middle of the botched 2018 rollout, these inherent implementation conflicts were readily apparent , internal emails have revealed.

On April 10, a California Department of Technology official detected that the new DMV system had been compromised by what appeared to be hackers in Croatia.

“This is pretty typical of a compromised device phoning home,” the official wrote in an email the Times reported as part of its investigation. “My Latin is a bit rusty, but I think Croatia translates to Hacker Heaven.”

The email described the incident as the DMV system attempting “communication with foreign nations,” but state government officials nonetheless repeatedly stressed that voter information was not compromised or at risk.

The hack was hardly the only problem the DMV system faced. The entire rollout was bogged down with bugs and glitches responsible for upwards of 100,000 inaccurate voter-registration records, including wrong party preferences, voters incorrectly being designated as wanting to vote by mail, and at least 1,500 noncitizens wrongly allowed to register to vote.

On the morning of the scheduled launch, the director of the California Department of Technology wrote in email, “In some strange way, this maybe [sic] a sign that we need to slow down in order to go fast again.”

“Fingers crossed and sending positive thoughts,” emailed an official in then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s cabinet, just before the launch.

The error involving the 1,500 noncitizens was caught before the November 2018 election, and DMV officials said they canceled those registrations and implemented a software update to address the problem. They also stressed that none of the impacted DMV customers were undocumented immigrants who got their driver’s license under a 2015 state law granting illegal immigrants the right to obtain one.

But it’s still unclear if any noncitizens were allowed to vote in the June 2018 primary and what impact the botched rollout had on the midterm elections across the state.

Questions also remain over whether the problems, combined with several other recent state laws designed to ease voter registration and the process of getting ballots to the ballot box -- including the most lenient ballot-harvesting law in the nation -- exacerbated ballot-box irregularities.

In the lead-up to the midterms, California also passed a law that allowed people to register to vote the same day of an election, making verifying their U.S. citizenship and California residency nearly impossible.

After the election, Republicans have questioned the unprecedented results in a number of battleground House districts where all of the GOP incumbents saw their Election Day leads disintegrate as mail-in and provisional ballots were counted in the weeks following the 2018 midterms.

Padilla: Rollout ‘Not Exactly Flawless’ But ‘Huge Success’

Democratic officials have largely minimized any voter-integrity concerns surrounding the 2018 election. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (pictured) recently deemed the voting process a “huge success,” directly crediting the new motor-voter system with registering millions of new voters leading up to the election and helping to produce a record turnout.

In remarks at a summit last month organized by the Future of California Elections, a group formed to promote vote-by-mail and other voter-access issues, he acknowledged the botched rollout, which news reports had revealed just two days prior, but insisted the overall result was positive:

“I know you’ve seen some headlines, so have I, about the rollout that was not exactly flawless or perfect. And I recognize that – and we’re mindful of that, and we’re addressing it. But do not let anybody tell you that the program has been anything but any overwhelming success.”

Padilla went on to say that 3.8 million new voters have registered or updated their registrations in the year since the motor-voter system has been up and running – 1 million of them were previously eligible to vote but not registered, bringing the total number of registered California voters to 20 million.

He predicted that by the March 2020 primary there would be 21 million with the possibility that the state would have 22 million registered voters by the November general election.

“We are moving the needle quickly and aggressively to extend the franchise of eligible California voters. And you’re right, I am damn proud of that,” he said.

But a year after the automated DMV voter registration, those involved in rushing it to the finish line are still pointing fingers over its failures.

In the wake of the new revelations, Amy Tong, the director of the California Department of Technology, has faced calls to step down. DMV Director Jean Shiomoto decided to retire last December after a tumultuous year. (The errors occurred when the DMV was also struggling with customer complaints over long lines amid a separate technology challenge in launching a federally mandated ID program.) Padilla, the Democratic official charged with running the state’s election systems, remains deeply committed to the motor-voter system. 

Ernst & Young is performing an independent review of the rollout, the results of which Padilla has said will be unveiled soon. Meanwhile state lawmakers from both parties say they will request a separate audit. 

Contacted this week, Padilla spokesman Sam Mahood told RCP that his boss last fall called on the DMV to cease transmission of voter registration data until it could “implement an additional layer of review and verification of the accuracy of the data.”

“While voter registration activity has continued at the DMV, the data is not sent to our office until the additional review and verification process is completed,” he said. “As DMV completes their additional review, data is sent to our office on a rolling basis.”

Thousands of Californians Who Requested a Mail-In Ballot Didn’t Get One

Conservative watchdogs, however, are demanding more transparency.

The Election Integrity Project-California, an election-monitoring group founded in 2010, late last month released a report chronicling irregularities in California’s 2018 election. The watchdog group, which sent its report to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency, is now stressing the need to fix the problems before the 2020 election. The organization is also planning to sue the state over the dysfunctional rollout.

“The DMV fiasco should require the [automatic motor-voter] registration be put on hold until such a time that all the software glitches are fixed,” Ellen Swensen, the group’s chief analyst, told RCP. “They didn’t test it properly and it was a disaster.  It should be taken off line right now until they can assure voters it’s fixed.”

EIPCa previously teamed up with Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest group, to sue Los Angeles County over its failure to follow federal law and clean up its voter rolls. The groups won that legal battle, and the county in early January agreed to remove an estimated 1.5 million inactive voters -- people who have not cast a ballot in two straight federal elections and failed to return repeated post cards from election officials seeking to verify the voter's address -- from the lists of those eligible to cast votes.

The most troubling of the EIPCa’s 2018 findings is its estimate that hundreds of thousands of people who requested a mail-in ballot may not have received them.

“There is an issue about missing ballots. Hundreds of thousands of people didn’t get a ballot,” Swensen said. “There’s a possibility that it was just a technical glitch or something else more nefarious or intentional happened. That has to be resolved before the primary.”

The impact was apparent in San Bernardino County, for example, where “roughly 1,000 ballots that were requested late did not go out. Around 40% of those people came to their voting place to cast a ballot and were forced to cast a provisional vote, meaning roughly 60% decided did not make the effort to go to the polls the day of the election,” she said.

The necessity of voting provisionally also created long lines and drove some voters away, the report found. EIPCa observers in a sampling of precincts in eight of the state’s 58 counties documented 248 precincts where the number of provisional ballots cast spiked from the 2014 midterm to the 2018 midterm elections.

“In these precincts, provisionals ranged between 13% and 75% of all ballots cast compared to California’s 2014 midterm average of 5% provisional ballots cast,” the report said. “Each provisional ballot took time for the voter to fill out information on the envelope and insert his or her ballot. This added to chaos and long lines (some as long as an hour and 45 minutes) in 82 precincts, frustrating voters and poll workers alike.”

Mahood, Padilla’s spokesman, said the high-level of provisional ballots statewide is consistent with a high-turnout election. The 2014 year, even though it was the previous midterm election, is not a reliable comparison year, Mahood explained, because turnout then was the lowest in 70 years, with just 36 percent of eligible voters turning out.

Mahood didn’t explain why the new motor-voter system, which was supposed to automate all the registrations and make updating them for accuracy easier, didn’t help significantly curb the number of provisional ballots.  

The EIPCa report also found that “a shocking 35 observed precincts ran out of provisional ballots, envelopes or related supplies,” and that some provisional voters in Ventura County were actually turned away because of the lack of supplies.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Amy Tong, director of the California Department of Technology, lost her job because of the motor-voter rollout problems. Tong remains in that job.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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