Audit finds problems with California 'motor voter' program

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SACRAMENTO — The California DMV's new voter registration program is confusing to voters and full of technical difficulties, leading to hundreds of thousands of discrepancies in voter registrations sent to the Secretary of State, according to an audit released Friday.

None of the discrepancies in roughly 3 million voter records reviewed by auditors resulted in major voter registration errors, such as putting someone in the wrong political party or allowing someone to vote who should not have, officials from the state Department of Finance said.

But the audit only examined a set of registrations between April and September 2018 and did not rule out the possibility of major errors in other registrations. Last year, DMV officials said one error may have prevented nearly 600 people from voting and another may have allowed about 1,500 people, perhaps including non-citizens, to incorrectly register to vote.

After the report's release, the Secretary of State's office said six people who were registered to vote despite opting out cast ballots in 2018. Deputy Secretary of State Paula Valle said the state can't confirm if the people were legally eligible to vote, but that none of them obtained driver's licenses under a program for immigrants living in the country illegally.

California launched the "motor voter" program in April 2018, and it automatically registers people to vote when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles unless they opt out. Potential errors in voter registration and other issues prompted former Gov. Jerry Brown to initiate an audit by the Department of Finance, which then hired the private firm Ernst & Young to help.

At the same time the DMV was rolling out motor voter, it was experiencing a surge in long lines related to Californians seeking new federally mandated identification cards known as "Real ID." Gov. Gavin Newsom recently named a new head of the agency and included roughly $240 million for DMV improvements and additional staff in the state budget.

The audit found many customers are confused by the voter registration questions they are asked at the DMV and that many people feel "forced to register to vote."

"The lack of an intuitive and easy-to-use application may result in customer frustration/confusion and could result in longer transaction," the audit said.

It also found a lack of sufficient testing before the product went live and limited ways to track and resolve incidents quickly. It recommended a greater oversight role for the Secretary of State in the program.

Leaders at the DMV and Secretary of State said many of the audit's recommendations are also being implemented.

"Many of the point-in-time findings and recommendations have already been implemented by DMV to improve the way we collect information from our customers and provide Motor Voter information to the Secretary of State. We continue to collaborate with the Secretary of State to efficiently and accurately provide voter registration information," DMV director Steve Gordon said in a statement.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla said the motor voter program has been a "transformative success for our democracy," and allowed 5 million Californians to register to vote or update their voter information.

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