As California prepared to launch its new Motor Voter program last year, top elections officials say they asked Secretary of State Alex Padilla to hold off on the rollout.
The plan called for the Department of Motor Vehicles to automatically register people who came into its offices to vote, one of several efforts by Democrats controlling California politics to make it easier for more people to vote.
With the June 2018 primary approaching, election officials said they warned that the department that manages car registration and boat licenses was not yet prepared to register voters.
"There wasn't the appropriate readiness to go forward in April, and that was brought to the secretary of state," said Dean Logan, registrar for Los Angeles County, adding that he "definitely expressed concern" to the Secretary of State's Office, as well as Padilla himself.
"The concern from registrars across the state, including myself, was not a resistance to moving forward. We supported the move to the New Motor Voter program in the long term. The concern was had there been adequate testing and development to be ready for the June election."
California moved forward anyway.
The DMV has since acknowledged making 105,000 registration errors since Motor Voter began on April 23, 2018. Some customers were registered with the wrong party. Others who wished to opt out of the program were nevertheless signed up. At least one non-citizen was added to the voter rolls, and the Secretary of State's Office is continuing to investigate whether more non-citizens were included.
Padilla declined to be interviewed after repeated requests from The Sacramento Bee. Officials for the DMV and the California Department of Technology declined to comment.
"The decision to launch Motor Voter was jointly made by the Secretary of State's office, DMV, CDT, and Governor (Jerry) Brown's Administration," Padilla said in a statement issued by his office. "This project took into consideration workload and logistics for all partners. While I have expressed frustration with some of the data transfer errors since the launch of Motor Voter, the program has been an overall success, adding over 800,000 new voters to the rolls. I look forward to working with Governor Newsom and his administration to continue improving voter registration at the DMV."
A news conference to promote the kickoff was scheduled for April 16, 2018.
But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who worked closely with Padilla to pass the 2015 bill that would register Californians to vote at DMV offices unless they opted out, said the event was abruptly canceled. Gonzalez said the DMV notified Padilla and her office of technical issues with the program and postponed the launch by a week.
"In hindsight, I wish we could figure out the damn technology issues that we have in state government," Gonzalez said. "We were scheduled to launch on Monday (April 16). On Thursday (April 12), they called and said they weren't ready."
Joe Holland, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said he warned Padilla's office against the April launch. Ultimately, he noted, it was not his call to make.
"Our recommendation was not to deploy it that close to an election," he said. "That was the opinion of most registrar of voters."
The election was an important one, as Democrats nationally sought to position themselves to regain control of the House of Representatives. Republicans would later charge that Motor Voter contributed to a Democratic wave that saw them lose seven congressional seats in California.
Like Padilla, Gonzalez said her motivation for launching Motor Voter was simply to encourage more people to vote.
"I, at my core belief, believe that the more people that engage and participate in elections, the better," Gonzalez said. "The fact that it helps us politically is really secondary."
Motor Voter registration data shows half of the 186,022 new voters registered without a party preference, while 35 percent were Democrats and 15 percent were Republicans. The unusual uptick in "no party preference" registrations has disproportionately hurt Republicans.
Paul Mitchell, a political consultant and vice president of the bipartisan voter data firm Political Data, said the DMV registration may have affected just one district that flipped for Democrats. "But in 2020, it could definitely have a huge impact on the candidates that get nominated in the primaries and in general election outcomes," he said.
By October 2018, as a smaller number of errors surfaced at the DMV, Padilla said he was "deeply frustrated" with the mistakes and had "grave concerns" about the botched implementation.
In an Oct. 8 conference call with election officials, Padilla blamed the DMV and the state Department of Technology for the errors, according to documents obtained through a Public Records Act request. Padilla's office initially withheld most of the 577 pages it provided. The Bee received more information after filing a legal complaint, though 17 pages remain redacted because the office considers them to be "investigative records."
"I am deeply frustrated and disappointed that the DMV and CDT have failed in their basic responsibility to collect and transmit accurate voter registration information to us — and by extension — to you," Padilla told county clerks, according to the documents. "These errors are completely unacceptable."
"I don't have to tell you that these errors at DMV damage voter confidence," he added. "This has been an extremely frustrating situation, and I recognize the burden it has been on all of you."
In an internal Oct. 8 memo, Padilla questioned whether the DMV's former director, Jean Shiomoto, should resign. She did so last month.
"If the DMV and CDT do not seek an independent third party review of their practices and procedures for the New Motor Voter program, then leadership MUST change," he wrote.
State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, thinks the DMV's implementation was flawed, but said Padilla should have taken more personal responsibility.
"If you were warned by industry experts that you're going to have difficulties with the launch, he should have respected that," Moorlach said. "Now that it's sort of blown up, for him to say, 'Hey, it was the DMV's fault,' I think it's disingenuous. It's his fault. He should have respected the advice of the experts and implementers."
Padilla considered a temporary halt to Motor Voter ahead of the November general election. He briefly asked the DMV and CDT to stop sending voter information to his office, prompting concerns from county clerks. They worried they would wind up with a large backlog of data right before the election.
But Padilla ultimately decided to keep the program running with an added layer of review.
He acknowledged in mid-October that a backlog "may have an adverse effect at an already busy election time," but directed counties to process all valid registration records.
"We are less than two weeks before the close of the voter registration deadline," Padilla wrote in an Oct. 8 memo. "During this time, tens of thousands of Californians will continue (to) register or update their voter registration information at the DMV people that want to participate in the upcoming midterm elections. I do not want to deny this opportunity to these Californians."
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