California GOP: Suspend Flawed Motor-Voter Program

California GOP: Suspend Flawed Motor-Voter Program
AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File
California GOP: Suspend Flawed Motor-Voter Program
AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File
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California Republicans are calling for the immediate suspension of the state’s new automated “motor voter” registration program after a government-sponsored audit showed that the rollout, rushed to boost voter participation before the 2018 election, was badly mismanaged with problems continuing to vex the system well into this year. 

The 113-page audit, released by state officials Friday afternoon, found nearly 84,000 duplicate records and twice that number of political party mistakes in the first five months of the program that automates voter registration at all Department of Motor Vehicle offices.

State officials commissioned the Ernst & Young audit after media reports of software errors in the system that transmitted tens of thousands of erroneous voter registrations.

“Another black mark for the @CA_DMV,” Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove tweeted late Friday afternoon. “The mismanagement is unbelievable as we’re learning today about tens of thousands of additional duplicate voter records. There needs to be an independent audit, complete overhaul and suspension of #MotorVoter.”

Sen. Patricia Bates, a Republican who has authored a bill to make motor-voter registration an opt-in process, also urged California Gov. Newsom to suspend the program.

“Suspending the program will allow the problems to be fixed and, just as importantly, allow DMV to focus on its other problems affecting customers,” she said in a statement. “[These] revelations are the last piece of evidence that automatic voter registration was flawed since its inception and has led to serious questions about the integrity of California’s election system.”

Others charged that the problems documented in an audit commissioned and funded by the same state officials who rushed the system’s rollout likely run much deeper than previously acknowledged.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson pointed to the audit’s findings that hundreds of thousands of registrations out of the 3 million scrutinized contained errors of some kind.

“That’s nearly a 10% error rate,” he said. “This is a political coverup. Voters deserve answers now.”

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who worked with the DMV and the state Department of Technology on the rollout, acknowledged that the mistakes “threatened to undermine public confidence in the program and created additional work burdens for state and local officials.”

“These errors added additional workload to state and local elections officials, as registration records impacted by these errors had to be researched, corrected, and in some cases canceled,” he said in a letter to Keely Bosler, the director of the state Department of Finance, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Padilla and Steve Gordon, the recently installed new DMV director, said they are already in the process of implementing changes the audit recommended. After a tumultuous year that included the botched rollout, the previous DMV director stepped down.

Earlier this year, Padilla acknowledged that the rollout was “not exactly flawless or perfect,” but still deemed it a “huge success” responsible for registering or updating information for 3.8 million voters — 1 million of them who were previously eligible to vote but not registered.

The automated system, he said, helped push the number of registered voters in California to 20 million. He also predicted it would help boost that number to 21 million by the March 2020 primary — when voters will choose a Democratic candidate to square off against President Trump -- and 22 million by the November general election.

Padilla helped spearhead a push to implement the 2015 state law creating an automated DMV voter registration process ahead of the June 2018 primary. The DMV had already provided voter registration services for two decades but the new system was designed to register or update records for all customers who show up at the DMV through a touch-screen automated system.

Other state officials have played down the impact of the problems the audit uncovered.

In a letter accompanying the audit, Bosler said the nearly 84,000 in duplicate voter registrations “resulted in no impact to voter eligibility.”

Amy Tong, the director of the California Department of Technology, which helped lead the project, has faced calls for her to resign in the wake of the problems. She argued that the audit found no “errors” and referred to inconsistencies found between the DMV records and the registration rolls maintained by the secretary of state simply as “differences.”

In a written statement to the L.A. Times, Tong called the inconsistencies “expected differences resulting from architectural differences” between the database systems used by Padilla’s office and those the DMV utilizes.

Ernst & Young submitted the report to state officials in stages between February and July, but Department of Finance officials only publicly released all of the results of the audit together on Friday.

Auditors interviewed nearly 30 current and former state employees involved in creating the automated system, including officials with the secretary of state’s office, and those working at or for the DMV and the Department of Technology. Their names are redacted in the report.

The officials and workers described a confusing process that lacked a clear chain of command and accountability.

“Multiple people were thought to be responsible” for parts of the rollout, the audit found. “There is inconsistency in lines of reporting and ownership of decision-making and authority.”

The audit also corroborated elements of a Times investigation that found state officials pushed to launch the registration system three months ahead of schedule so that it could be up and running for the June 2018 statewide primary, providing inadequate time for testing.

“The master test plan describes a project decision to intentionally ‘limit’ the testing time for the application and to simultaneously perform all types of testing, rather than in successive phases (integration, system and user acceptance),” the auditors wrote. “Testing duration was limited to meet the imposed April 3, 2018 project deadline.”

In addition, the audit found that “assignments and responsibilities” did not line up with individuals with the “requisite experience and knowledge” to accomplish them.

The audit also found that the secretary of state’s office was “not well-integrated into the project review of the application prototypes and was shown the solution on a limited basis within the course of the project.” It recommended that the secretary of state’s office be placed in a position for “accountability for program success at all levels of the project” and that the process should include “the definition of clear roles and responsibilities and formal approvals.”

On a more basic level, the audit found that DMV customers didn’t understand why they were being asked to register to vote when they were at the DMV to complete tasks related to driving such as renewing a license or changing their address. It also found that the “registration options with the Motor Voter questionnaire are confusing to the public.” For instance, “the language used in the options does not provide a clear choice to maintain voter registration as is, without being removed from the current voter roll.”

Because of the lack of an intuitive and easy-to-use application, DMV customers could experience “frustration/confusion” as well as “longer transaction times, erroneous responses and reduced voter confidence in their registration status.” 

Based on interviews with DMV workers, the audit found that workers were not trained to answer basic voter registration questions and address concerns.

“Based on field visit interviews, DMV technicians do not know how to answer voter eligibility questions by the public, such as, ‘If I’m on parole, am I still eligible to register?’”

After reviewing DMV customer feedback on the new motor-voter law, auditors found that “negative sentiment steadily increased from May through September,” which, the report said, “suggests that the public is confused overall and feels forced to register to vote.”

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

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