PD Editorial: Put motor voter on hold until the bugs are fixed

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California’s effort to increase voter registration by way of the Department of Motor Vehicles is laudable, but the chronically troubled department and state technology officials messed up the implementation. Until the state can fix things, motor voter should go on hiatus.

Reports about problems with motor voter have circulated for months, but few people expected that things were as bad as they are. An independent audit of the system found nearly 2 million erroneous data points. Most of the discrepancies were minor. Many were just mismatched dates resulting from DMV registering a person on one day but the secretary of state’s office processing on another.

But some of the mistakes were more worrying. In 173,243 records, the political party someone chose didn’t match up between DMV and secretary of state data. Even more troubling, 83,684 records were identified as duplicates in the voter registration data set.

We must be absolutely clear here. No evidence emerged that these problems were the result of foreign hackers’ tampering. Nor was there anything to show that they had resulted in people voting twice or being denied voting eligibility. Elections were not compromised.

Even so, there’s no guarantee that such errors could not cause problems in the future. It’s not hard to imagine a tight election in a congressional district in a year in which the House majority is in play blowing up because the outcome hinges on unreliable registration records.

Widespread errors also could undermine public confidence in the electoral system. Without that confidence, democracy suffers. Why vote if there’s no guarantee elections officials will get things right?

One likely contributing factor to the mistakes was that the state rolled out the new system. Lawmakers passed the law authorizing it in 2015, and officials rushed to get it online in time for the 2018 midterm election. That left insufficient time for thorough testing of the complex data-sharing systems. Because the new system was opt-out of registering — unlike the previous opt-in system — the volume skyrocketed, and mistakes were made.

The auditors recommend retesting the entire system and implementing measures that will ensure greater data integrity. Republicans have called for suspending the program until the bugs are worked out. They’re right; the state should put it on hold.

Democrats control the levers of power, and it’s not clear that they will go that far. The biggest hint that they’d rather this whole thing just go away is in the timing of the report’s release. Auditors completed it and began sharing it with some officials in February. The public, however, didn’t see it until last Friday. As any political communications expert will tell you, Friday in August is a great day to release bad news in the hope that the public will miss it over a summer weekend.

California should make it as easy as possible for eligible voters to participate in the democratic process, but only so long as accuracy and the integrity of the system are maintained. That’s not happening now. Step back, fix the problems and then relaunch the new motor voter when it’s ready for prime time.

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