Criticism of state law was dismissed, but latest scandal shows what happens when you let the DMV handle registrations.
We never could have seen this one coming. News stories in recent weeks show that a new California motor-voter law that requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to automatically register people who have California driver’s licenses or state identification cards (unless they opt out) is rife with errors, potentially allowing ineligible people and noncitizens to vote in elections. It’s turned into a major scandal, even in Democratic-controlled California.
“California’s top elections official said Tuesday he doesn’t yet know if any of the roughly 1,500 people mistakenly registered to vote by the Department of Motor Vehicles cast ballots in the June primary,” according to a recent Associated Press investigation. Secretary of State Alex Padilla said he might freeze the motor-voter program, while Gov. Jerry Brown said a recently approved audit would get to the bottom of it, but don’t hold your breath.
“There is much more to see here than what the DMV is admitting to,” noted Assemblyman Jim Patterson, the Fresno Republican who has been the Legislature’s DMV watchdog. “They have either been hiding the truth from the public or are completely unaware of this voter registration disaster — either should be a startling realization for this governor and the public.”
The issue is far broader than 1,500 ballots. The Sacramento Bee just reported that “The DMV reported last month that it made 23,000 voter registration errors resulting from technicians toggling between multiple screens and having registration information improperly merged.” The Los Angeles Times detailed a “software error” in May that led to 77,000 voter records that were “misreported” to the DMV, allowing duplicate ballots in certain cases. In other instances, these glitches may have led the DMV to inexplicably change the party registration of some voters.
In 2015, the governor signed Assembly Bill 1461. It “requires the (secretary of state) and the DMV to establish the California New Motor Voter Program for the purpose of increasing opportunities for voter registration by any person who is qualified to vote,” as the official bill analysis explained. It was justified based on California’s low voter-turnout rates. There’s plenty of reason to oppose motor voter. It’s not hard to register to vote, and one might argue that those unwilling to fill out a simple form might not be the most-informed voters.
The low voting rates have more to do with a lack of choices on the ballot and the state’s worst-in-the-nation representation rates (we have such large state legislative districts that everyone’s vote is more meaningless than anywhere else). The problem is not caused by any impediments to registration, and those who register often don’t vote anyway. I fail to see how high voting rates are a good in and of themselves given that some of the least-free nations on the globe have 100-percent turnout rates, but that’s beside the point.
My long-time opposition to such policies are based mainly on governmental incompetence. There are few things more inaccurate than government databases. As an aside, the state government continues its gun-confiscation program based on the Armed Prohibited Persons System, yet those databases of improper gun owners are wildly inaccurate. What’s the chance the DMV, of all places, could get its system right? This is an agency that, no matter how much more money it receives or how many “reforms” it implements, is plagued by five-hour lines.
California issues driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. I’m not against that policy (please hold back your nasty comments) because it’s far better that, after someone plows into your car in a parking lot, that they have an identification card and insurance. It beats the previous way that this was handled, whereby the undocumented and uninsured driver would just disappear. But that also raises an obvious problem, which critics of AB 1461 brought up at the time: It makes it too easy for DMV to mistakenly register license holders, even if they are not eligible to vote in the United States. That point was raised also in the official Assembly bill analysis.
Making matters worse, the amended version of that law largely exempts voters from any penalty for voting illegally, unless they did so willfully. It states that “if a person who is ineligible to vote becomes registered to vote by operation of the California New Motor Voter Program … that person’s registration shall be presumed to have been effected with official authorization and not the fault of that person.” That amendment should have set off the alarm bells, even though the bill’s authors insisted unconvincingly that it had tougher-than-ever protections.
“Instead of coming up with a system to weed out the voter-eligible drivers from the non-eligible ones, the bill seems to ensure the state cannot easily make those distinctions,” I argued in my San Diego Union-Tribune column at the time. “Senate amendments delete the provisions of the bill that would have forced the Department of Motor Vehicles to provide the secretary of state with information about the document the person provided ‘to prove that his or her presence in the United States is authorized under federal law….’” The secretary of state determines eligibility, but the law made it unreasonably difficult for him to do so (provided he had the will to do so).
My editor fielded a complaint about my “racist” column, which is ironic given that my views on immigration are libertarian. When it comes to voting, I’m pretty cynical. It doesn’t change much. Democracy is, as Mencken wrote, “a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” Nevertheless, such collective ignorance ought to be expressed solely by a nation’s citizens. Unfortunately, the state’s Democratic leaders have proposed myriad bills that erase meaningful distinctions between citizens and noncitizens, such as a bill that would have allowed noncitizens to serve on juries.
Many people predicted this mess. Here’s another prediction: Nothing will get fixed. Voter turnout will remain low. The DMV will get large new infusions of cash. Its database mistakes will fester. Then the “reformers” will come up with new ways to make registration even easier. And then no one will ever have seen it coming as the next round of scandals unfold.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
California DMV Headquaters, Sacramento (Coolcaesar at en:Wikipedia/Creative Commons)