At least 600 Californians, including lifelong Republicans and Democrats, have had their voter registration unexpectedly changed, and several county elections officials are pinning much of the blame on the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Among those affected: the daughter of the California Senate’s GOP leader. “I was like, ‘Kristin did you register as no party preference?’” asked Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. “She said, ‘No, I’m a Republican.’” Grove’s daughter had recently visited the Department of Motor Vehicles to change her address. Shortly thereafter, Sacramento County sent her a postcard informing her she is now registered as a “No Party Preference” voter ahead of California’s March 3, 2020 presidential primary. Grove stumbled across the notice earlier this week at her daughter’s Sacramento home, and worries that hundreds more could soon experience a similar unwanted surprise. Elections officials across the state are linking many of the reported complaints to the state’s new Motor Voter program, which launched ahead of the 2018 midterms to automatically register eligible voters when they visit the DMV. The 2015 law was designed to help boost participation, but a rushed launch prompted 105,000 registration errors to occur following its roll-out.
Janna Haynes, public information officer for Sacramento County Voter Registration & Elections, said the department has received “close to 200 calls from people saying they don’t think they were registered NPP” after the county recently sent out postcards to about 200,000 other people earlier this month.
Haynes noted two-thirds of the 200 complaints the department received came from people who have recently done business with the DMV.
While it’s unclear what happened to the people who didn’t visit the DMV, other errors may have occurred from voters wrongly filling out government documents or election workers inaccurately entering voter data.
“There does seem to be a correlation,” Haynes said of the relationship between Motor Voter and the latest batch of complaints. “We have experienced this kind of issue in the past, but there does seem to be an increase.”
Santa Clara County’s registrar of voters announced on Dec. 3 that it had been contacted by about 300 voters who may have been impacted by Motor Voter.
Shasta County said on Thursday it has easily had at least 100 residents complain they were wrongfully listed with no party preference voter. A Fresno County official could not offer a specific number, but had noticed an uptick in complaints.
“I had one voter come in who reported that the DMV staff was more helpful than they needed to be by interjecting and taking the mouse away from her at the computer terminal when she was trying to complete the voter registration piece,” said Cathy Darling Allen, Shasta County’s clerk and registrar of voters. “I wouldn’t discount the concerns about parties being stripped out at the DMV.”
IS THE DMV TO BLAME?
It’s routine for county elections offices to send out notices in presidential primary years asking no party preference voters if they want to switch their party registration or request a specific party ballot. That gives no party preference voters a choice to cast a ballot in partisan primary.
It’s also common for some voters to forget they switched their parties and for occasional complaints before a presidential primary. It’s the high number of errors and past troubles with Motor Voter that concern top elections officials.
Last year, confusing DMV prompts contributed to an unusual spike in people being registered with no party preference.
Within the first months of the program’s launch, 52 percent of those who registered at the DMV declined to state a party, which is much higher than the 33 percent of those who registered with no party preference outside of the DMV.
A DMV prompt asked voters to either select a political party or click a button saying, “I do not wish to choose a political party.” Those who either skipped the question or decided not to choose a party were defaulted to no party preference, even if they had previously been registered with a qualified political party.
The DMV said it has since made improvements to its systems to prevent people from being unknowingly switched to no party preference.
“The DMV is not aware of a computer glitch or system issue related to voter registration,” the department said in a statement. “DMV worked in partnership with the Secretary of State’s office to implement improvements to the party preference portion of the registration process in January 2019.”
Grove and her Republican colleagues want to suspend the Motor Voter program — a move Secretary of State Alex Padilla had briefly considered following a batch of errors last year.
There are three simple ways Californians can change their party affiliation:
- Online: The DMV and Sam Mahood, a spokesman for Padilla, encourage people to check their registration and party affiliation status at voterstatus.sos.ca.gov and make changes at registertovote.ca.gov.
- In person: Changes can also be made by going in person to a local county elections office and filling out a new voter registration card.
- Over the phone: People can also call their county’s elections department to get a new voter registration card to drop off in person or mail back or call 1-800-345-VOTE.
“If a voter’s concerned their party preferences may have been changed, we’re happy to research the voters’ records and find out what happened,” Mahood said. “We encourage every voter, regardless of party, to verify their registration status since party does matter.”
The no party preference default could disproportionately hurt Republicans, because the party operates under a closed primary system that prohibits people from voting in their primary unless they are explicitly registered with their party.
Meanwhile, the Democratic, Libertarian and American Independent parties allow no party preference voters to request a ballot to participate in their open primary system.
While Trump is the only serious Republican on the primary ballot, several congressional and state legislature races are up for grabs in California.
“This is just another example that the program wasn’t ready for the prime time,” California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Patterson said.
Brandi Orth, Fresno County registrar of voters, confirmed there have been cases of partisans being registered with no party preference, but she doesn’t have a verifiable number of people affected or a breakdown of how many of them had their registration mistakes occur when they visited the DMV.
“When the DMV implemented that program, there were some problems, but I have no quantifiable numbers about that,” Orth said. “The best answer is to get the information to the voters. It’s not uncommon for this topic to have a lot of confusion.”
Bill O’Neill, registrar of voters in El Dorado County, worries residents in his community will flood his office with complaints that will burden workers ahead of an already busy election season.
“My fear is that we will get many dozens of calls from people who say they’re not nonpartisan and have never been registered as nonpartisan,” O’Neill said. “It’s going to increase our workload at a time where we’re already extremely busy.”