California’s Motor Voter System Duplicated 83K Voter Records

An audit released last week, looked at more than 3 million voter registration files, comparing the records from both DMV and California's secretary of state. It found 83,684 duplicate voter registration records.

by John Myers, Los Angeles Times / August 12, 2019
A sign advertises a touchscreen machine, a process for voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Santa Ana, Calif., on May 5, 2016. Touchscreen machines are used by voters to complete their registration process by answering questions like their party preference and language preference. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS

(TNS) — California’s ambitious effort to automate voter registration at Department of Motor Vehicle offices produced almost 84,000 duplicate records and more than twice that number with political party mistakes, according to an audit released Friday by state officials.

The analysis covered just the first five months of the new “motor voter” program, which was launched in April 2018. It found a wide array of problems with the rollout of the DMV system, including a limited amount of testing as well as inconsistent and confusing lines of communication between the state agencies involved in its creation. Many of the findings align with documents reported by the Los Angeles Times in an investigation earlier this year of the motor voter program.

Auditors reviewed more than 3 million voter registration files, comparing the records from both DMV and California’s secretary of state. They found 83,684 duplicate voter registration records, a mistake attributed to inconsistencies in what was listed for voters’ political party preferences.

“This action resulted in no impact to voter eligibility,” Keely Martin Bosler, director of the state Department of Finance, wrote in a letter on Friday to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Cabinet secretary.

Separately, the audit found additional errors in voter registration related to party preference. Investigators wrote that 171,145 DMV records contained entries indicating a person’s political party but no such “associated designation” within the data received by state elections officials.

An independent accounting firm, Ernst & Young, conducted the audit. While released to the public on Friday, documents show the report was submitted to state officials in stages between February and July. No explanation was immediately offered as to why the report was kept confidential until now.

California’s motor voter system was created through a 2015 state law designed to make it easier for more citizens to register. While the DMV has provided voter registration services for some two decades, that program was voluntary. The new state system, which uses a touch-screen system in DMV offices, is intended to register any eligible Californian unless the person opts out of the process.

Duplicate voter registration documents were first reported within a month of the DMV system’s launch. Local elections officials have said that those errors were caught and corrected, and that those voters were not allowed to cast more than one ballot.

The 113-page audit offers a series of glimpses into the troubled launch of the motor voter system and points out that many of the problems remained uncorrected well into 2019.

“This assessment has identified risks that, if not addressed, will adversely impact the realization of the intended benefits of the program,” auditors wrote in the report.

A number of current and former state employees who helped design and launch the program were interviewed by the auditors, though their names were redacted from the report before it was made public. They described a confusing web of cross-department conversations between the DMV, the secretary of state and the California Department of Technology.

“Multiple people were thought to be responsible” for certain tasks, the employees told auditors, according to the report. “There is inconsistency in lines of reporting and ownership of decision-making authority.”

The auditors also found that significant documentation of processes used to build and test the software was missing. Some who worked on the project told The Times earlier this year that formal processes were often skipped — in part, due to demands that the voter registration system be in place and ready to use for the June 2018 statewide primary election.

The report’s authors also interviewed DMV customers about the experience of using the motor voter system, and found widespread dissatisfaction. One key complaint was that the choices presented on touch screens were confusing for DMV customers who were already registered to vote.

“The language used in the options does not provide a clear choice to maintain voter registration,” the auditors wrote. In addition, DMV employees “were not provided with training to answer voter registration questions and concerns.”

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