A deeper look inside the recent troubles faced by the California Department of Motor Vehicles' "motor voter" program indicates that the breakdowns may be traceable to a lack of systems integration. This analysis is excerpted from a longer version on CALmatters.org.


By Laurel Rosenhall



The California Department of Motor Vehicles gave the public a series of piecemeal explanations as it acknowledged making more than 100,000 errors in recent months in registering Californians to vote. Software problems, it said in May. Human errors from toggling between computer windows, it said in September. Data entry mistakes that were corrected but never saved, it said this month.

What DMV officials didn’t acknowledge — and still haven’t — was what may be the underlying problem: The agency rolled out a massive new voter registration effort with a piecemeal computer system.

Instead of the properly integrated computer program that was needed, the initiative was launched in April with disparate computer systems that didn’t automatically link together, according to advocates who have been working closely with the DMV on the new “motor voter” system. That meant DMV workers had to manually link information from various systems during transactions between April and September, when an integrated system was put in place, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

All the problems reported so far happened during that period of time.

“What we’re finding out is that they were really patching together an old system with several new systems,” Feng said.

“We still don’t know if … they had planned all along to have an interim process between April and September, or if this is something they cobbled together because something wasn’t ready.”

The DMV declined to answer CALmatters’ questions about the computer systems, instead providing a statement saying the motor voter program “has been implemented in phases, allowing DMV to roll out additional functionality.” The latest upgrade, the statement says, was on Sept. 26.

The idea was that rather than duplicating information by filling out a voter registration form and a driver’s license form, Californians who are legally eligible to vote would automatically be registered when completing the DMV’s computerized application for a driver’s license or ID card.

Since the program launched in April, about 1.4 million Californians have registered to vote or updated their voter registration through the motor voter process — and the DMV has acknowledged three batches of mistakes:

  • A software error affected 77,000 registrations, resulting, in some cases, in two registration forms indicating different party preferences being issued for one voter.
  • A window-toggling error affected 23,000 registrations, resulting in changes to voters’ party preference, vote-by-mail options and language choices. 
  • A data entry error resulted in 1,500 people being registered to vote even though they are not legally eligible because they are not U.S. citizens, are under 18 or are on parole for a felony conviction.

Though the problems are serious, none indicate intentional acts of fraud or hacking. Instead, they appear to be the result of human error and glitchy technology — which officials say are being fixed with software updates and employee training. The secretary of state said erroneous registrations have been canceled, and DMV leaders say they’ve put new procedures in place to prevent mistakes in the future.

“We continue to review the efficiency and accuracy of the program and will make additional upgrades as needed,” said a statement from DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla has said the errors amount to a small fraction the transactions processed by the DMV and maintains that the corrective steps he’s taking, including a third-party review of the motor voter system, “are crucial to ensuring voter confidence in our democracy.” 

This report is published with permission from CALmatters.org, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.